Saturday, August 26, 2023

Pickaway Plains and staging swallows

A juvenile Cliff Swallow rockets past my position. No art shot here, just the best that I could do in the fading light.

I spent a wonderful day in Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio, botanizing and showing Ohio State University researcher Shauna Weyrauch a Bobcat den that I stumbled upon last November. You can read about that and see pics of the mother cat and her two kittens RIGHT HERE. Shauna conducts research into Bobcats and is particularly interested in dens.

On my way home, late in the day, I headed up State Route 104, which parallels the Scioto River on its west side. Beginning just north of Chillicothe in Ross County, I began noticing large numbers of swallows foraging over the fields. Their numbers did not diminish as I moved north, and finally, I saw a field especially thick with swallows and some Common Nighthawks at the village of Yellowbud in northern Ross County. That's about nine miles north of where I started seeing significant numbers of swallows.

As I drove, I could see that many of the swallows were Cliff Swallows, so I wanted to stop and watch a big group for a while to try and see what the species composition and their ratios were. The field I chose was a good one, with many hundreds of birds and this was just a fraction of the numbers that I had seen driving north. And once I left this field, near dusk, I continued to see scores of swallows for a few miles more to the north, to about the latitude of Circleville in Pickaway County.

At my sample site, Cliff Swallow was the most numerous species, followed by Bank Swallow. I'd estimate that these two species comprised 85-90% of all the swallows. Barn Swallow was third most common, and the rest of the birds were much smaller numbers of Northern Rough-winged and Tree swallows, and Purple Martin. In sum, I would estimate that I saw 3,000 Cliff Swallows, 2,000+ Bank Swallows, maybe 1,000 Barn Swallows and perhaps a few hundred of the other species combined.

The area where the swallows were is known as the Pickaway Plains, a prairie that stretched along the Scioto River from about present-day Circleville south into northern Ross County. Its extent is imperfectly known as this prairie was destroyed early on and there seems to be little solid documentation of the Pickaway Plains. Historically, the region is probably best known for the substantial Indian towns within the plains.

The numbers of Cliff Swallows are significant. Bruce Peterjohn, in his The Birds of Ohio (2001), notes the largest fall flocks at 100-150+ birds, with most flocks comprising 15-30+ birds. The flock that I was watching in the one field contained far more birds than that, and in the 12 mile or so stretch of Route 104 where the birds were concentrated there were, as stated previously, far more.

This is the fourth time that I've seen huge numbers of Cliff Swallows in the Pickaway Plains. All of the other observations were made on the opposite (east) side of the Scioto River, in an area called Charlie's Pond, and one at a wetland complex just south of Circleville. The first time, about 12 years ago, I saw an estimated 2,000 Cliff Swallows, mostly resting atop soybean plants. I was with Bernie Master the second time, about 5-6 years ago, and we saw 1,500+ in a tight concentration. Then, in 2020, I saw another group of about 2,500 Cliff Swallows. All of these observations were in the last two weeks of August. I'm going to try and get back down there within the next few days, earlier in the day, and see what I can find. I'd bet that if I had had time to get over to the east side of the river yesterday and explore those other locales, I would have seen far more Cliff Swallows.

As all these areas of Cliff Swallow sightings correspond with the former Pickaway Plains prairie, I have to wonder if this is an ancestral staging area for swallows in autumnal migration. Back in the prairie days, this huge landscape would have been dominated by prairie vegetation that spawned legions of flying insects and would have been a highly productive waystation for insect-eating birds of open country like swallows.


Monday, August 21, 2023

Nature: Here's how the Ohio Wildlife Center helped rehabilitate 2 baby minks


A newly released male mink gets his bearings/Jim McCormac

Nature: Here's how the Ohio Wildlife Center helped rehabilitate 2 baby minks

Columbus Dispatch
August 20, 2023

Jim McCormac

No one in the world needs a mink coat but a mink. — Murray Banks

Of Ohio’s 54 extant native mammal species, perhaps none eclipse the Mustelidae family in charisma and interesting behavior. This group includes the badger, river otter, three species of weasels, and the American mink.

The mink is the world’s best-known furbearer, and it occurs throughout Ohio. Minks are coveted worldwide for their silken, lustrous fur, and coats made of mink remain a major status symbol. High-end mink coats can fetch five figures or more.

From the 1930s into the 1990s, over 10,000 minks were trapped each year in Ohio. Today, only a fraction of that number is trapped. Most mink fur now comes from mink farming. This is an abominable practice that entails selective breeding of a mammal ill-suited for captivity purely to cater to fashion whims. Cruelty driven by vanity.

Minks frequent stream banks and pond margins. A mink in motion is a sight to see. It resembles a mammalian Slinky, moving in gracefully fluid undulating bounds. While largely nocturnal and seldom seen, minks are big enough to notice: A male might stretch to 2 feet and weigh over 2 pounds.

As with most of their weasel brethren, minks are ferocious hunters. Fish are a dietary staple, and minks will plunge to depths of up to 15 feet to capture piscine prey. They’ll also catch small mammals — baby rabbits and muskrat are favorites — and songbirds. Victims are rapidly dispatched with a pinch on the neck like Mr. Spock — a rapid powerful bite to the vertebrae. Turnabout is fair play, and a common predator of minks is the great horned owl, one of its few mortal enemies.

When males hook up with females from late winter to early spring, they establish a streambank burrow in which to raise their pups. The average litter is 4-5 pups, although ambitious parents may occasionally have up to 10. The pups need intensive parental care for nearly two months, with most food caught for them. After about two months, the pups begin to learn hunting skills from their parents and are on their own by early fall.

I was pleased to receive word a few weeks back from Gwen Hoogendoorn about a pair of minks that she was looking to release. The two unrelated young males were taken to the Ohio Wildlife Center (OWC) back in May, after their parents had been killed by dogs. The OWC is the largest rehabilitator of wild animals in the state, accepting over 7,500 animals involving around 175 species annually.

Gwen, a lieutenant colonel in the Ohio National Guard and vice president of the Ohio Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, has volunteered for the OWC for over 20 years. She fosters myriad animals each year until they are ready for release. Gwen received the minks when they were about five weeks old and eyes barely open. Good care, lots of nutrition, and a safe environment, and come mid-August the minks were ready to strike out on their own.

I suggested Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park as a potential release site, and Metro Park authorities approved the project. On Aug. 10, Gwen and the minks met me, ranger Elaine Hall and other interested observers at the park. Minks in a box, we traipsed far out into the largest prairie restoration project in Central Ohio, sidestepping scores of leopard frogs along the way.

At first, the minks were tentative about leaving the confines of their shelter, but one soon emerged and took to the waters of an adjacent wetland like a fish. Baby minks must learn about water from their parents, but Hoogendoorn had gradually acclimated them to water while they were in her care. The young minks frolicked like otters, and even caught a frog. The other minks soon exited and joined its buddy in racing through the vegetation.

These two minks will soon go their separate ways, but they’re in excellent habitat filled with prey: fish, frogs, muskrats, voles and other mink delicacies. They will become part of the ecological web of one of Ohio’s greatest remaining prairies.

The Ohio Wildlife Center deserves kudos for its tireless work in caring for animals that, in most cases, have been orphaned or injured by peoples’ activities. Whenever possible, and that’s in the great majority of cases, successfully rehabbed animals are released as these minks were.

For more information about the Ohio Wildlife Center, 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

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Evening-primrose Moth


A familiar, widespread and oftentimes very common wildflower, the Common Evening-primrose (Oenothera biennis). The colorful buds in the center will burst into flower the following day.

Primrose flowers open at dusk, flower through the night and the following morning, and largely close up by early afternoon. I departed for an epic day of bird photography yesterday at 5 am, and as it got lighter towards dawn, I noticed many large drifts of primrose along the roadsides as I neared Lake Erie and the western marshes. Whenever I see this plant in flower, a particular and very special moth comes to mind.

Later that morning, I was slowly cruising down a country lane near Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. Scattered patches of primrose dotted the roadside, and I was keeping an eye on those when I spotted a pinkish anomaly in one of the flowers. The flower in question is the topmost blossom on the tall plant in this photo.

Closer inspection revealed a pair of Evening-primrose Moths (Schinia florida) tucked into the flower! Nearly the entire life cycle of this beautiful pink and yellowish moth plays out on primrose flowers. The adults roost in or on the flower buds during the day, will take nectar from the flowers at night (as do many other moth species), and the caterpillars eat the flower buds. The latter burrow into the ground to pupate.

A pair of Primrose Moths on flower buds makes for a particularly colorful scene. This species has but one brood a year, and now is the time to search for them. Just try to keep an eye on primrose flowers, looking for pink spots in flowers. Morning is best, when the flowers are fully open, and the moths are more exposed.

Primrose Moths seem inexplicably rare, given the abundance of their host plant. I have looked at thousands of primrose flowers over the years, and this is only the third time I have found the moth. The site where the moths in this post were had many other primrose plants in the vicinity. Despite checking hundreds of nearby flowers, no other moths could be found.

Common Evening-primrose is part of a complex of Oenothera species that may not yet be understood very well. Some of them hybridize, and at least some species appear to be of relatively recent origin. It may be that some varieties/forms/species may vary profoundly in chemical composition, and the Evening-primrose Moths and its caterpillar phase are tightly tied to a rarer form of the primrose. Pure speculation of course, but there's some reason(s) why this colorful moth is apparently fairly rare. A check of iNaturalist bears this out. There are less than 20 records from Ohio, and while the moth does become more frequent in other regions, overall, the records are scattered and often few and far between.

PHOTO NOTES: I made these images with the Canon R5 (it's the only camera I want to use anymore) and the superb Canon 100mm f/2.8L macro lens. I used flash from the 600 speedlite for some images, as it was a sunny day, and the light was somewhat harsh. Flash can help mitigate that. Almost all images were at f/13. If no flash was used, the ISO was 400 and whatever shutter speed gave me a correct exposure. Flash on, it was ISO 200 and 1/200 shutter speed.

The moths in the flower were shot in situ. Once that was done, I transferred them to a primrose that sported the colorful flower buds. I do not know for a fact that Primrose Moths roost on flower buds but given their similar coloration it seems plausible that they would. Whatever, I wanted that shot. It was an easy matter to gently coax the moths onto my finger. When I presented them with the flower buds, they scrambled right onboard with little prompting and posed beautifully. After that shoot was complete, I got the moths back on my finger, put them up to another primrose flower, they pushed inside, and I left them be. I have found that the fuzzier/hairier the moth, the more mellow and easier to handle it is. These Primrose Moths reinforced that rule.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Lilypad Forktail: The colonization of Ohio continues

As always, click the image to enlarge it

A mating pair of Lilypad Forktails (Ischnura kellicottii) at Bear Creek Lake in Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County, Ohio. Male blue, female orange. The reddish globules on the female's thorax are larval mites (the male has some as well). Mites commonly infest damselflies.

The forktails are on the leaf of a Fragrant Water-lily (Nymphaea odorata), a plant that they are intimately associated with. I checked this site thoroughly for Lilypad Forktails two summers ago, saw none, and do not think any were yet present. On a visit this year on August 3, they were everywhere. A later check of iNaturalist showed that someone found them here last year (so much for my Scioto County record). So, 2021 - no forktails; 2022, some appear; and 2023 - thriving population. This small lake is deep within Shawnee State Forest, and how these tiny damselflies find such a remote site and so rapidly colonize it is a mystery to me.

It wasn't long ago that this southern damselfly was quite rare in Ohio. Our first record dates to 1992, and for a long time Lilypad Forktails were only known from that Williams County site. Now they have been documented in 20 counties, and I wouldn't be surprised to find them anywhere that Fragrant Water-lily colonies occur. This is one of a number of southern damselfly/dragonfly species that are rapidly expanding northward.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Nature: Ghost-pipe one of summer's most interesting wildflowers


Ghost-pipe springs from forest leaf litter/Jim McCormac

Nature: Ghost-pipe one of summer's most interesting wildflowers

Columbus Dispatch
August 6, 2023

Jim McCormac

For most people, the wildflower heydays are in spring. Warming temperatures and plenty of sun, not yet filtered out by dense canopies of leaves, spark an eruption of vernal flora. Bluebells, spring beauties, trilliums, trout lilies, wood poppies and scores of other flowers color the forest floors.

By mid-to-late summer, woodlands are cloaked in deep shade, root zone temperatures are higher, and colorful wildflower palettes are a not-so-distant memory. That’s not to say there aren’t flowers for the finding. The cast of botanical characters tends to be subdued and less flashy than their spring counterparts, though.

I was recently in a large southern Ohio forest, casting about for various interesting summer plants. The temperature was about 85 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity — seasonally apropos. Those two factors conspire to keep many would-be wildflower seekers holed up in the air conditioning, but braving the heat has its rewards.

While exploring a densely wooded slope, I saw the spectral silhouettes of one of our most interesting summer wildflowers glowing faintly in the gloom of the forest understory. Ghost-pipe! This bizarre plant lacks chlorophyll and has an eerie quality, as if a dead man’s fingers were clawing from the soil. Some people understandably dismiss ghost-pipe (also called Indian pipe) as some sort of fungus.

Ghost-pipe (Monotropa uniflora) is a saprophyte. That’s a two-dollar word referring to a plant or other organism that garners its nourishment from dead or decaying material. On its face, it would seem that ghost-pipes are doing just that. They spring from decomposing leaf litter and the rich humus of forest soil forged by annual layers of fallen plant detritus.

But ghost-pipe nutrition is a bit more specialized than that. The plant creates a dense mat of brittle, flashy roots, which it uses to tap into subterranean fungi. Ghost-pipe roots fuse with certain types of fungi, which are, in turn, living on – and decomposing – leaf litter. By doing so, ghost-pipe avoids the need to harvest sun and produce chlorophyll, as nearly all of our 1,800 or so Ohio native plants must do. Hence the ghostly pallor of the plant, as chlorophyll is what gives plants their green coloration.

It’s fairly easy to overlook ghost-pipes, as a big one might rise to only 9 inches. But they typically produce multiple clumped flowering stems, making plants more conspicuous. The leaves are reduced to tiny scales, and each stem is capped with a single large flower. The bloom is colored like the stem, so at first blush, it can be easy to miss. Look into the flower from above and you’ll see its reproductive parts: a dozen or so pollen-producing stamens surrounding a thick style (the pollen receptor). Occasionally, one finds ghost-pipes with a beautiful rose-purple tinge to the stems.

Most flowering plants require pollinators, and ghost-pipe is no exception. Bumblebees do the heavy lifting. Peak bloom coincides with peak bumblebee numbers and diversity, ensuring plenty of winged vectors to tote pollen to different plants. The luminescent whitish glow of ghost-pipe flowers no doubt helps lure the fuzzy insects.

Ghost-pipe has been found in about two-thirds of Ohio’s 88 counties. It would have historically occurred in all of them, but loss of forested habitats, especially in western Ohio, has made it scarcer. Generally, the larger the woods, the better the odds of stumbling into ghost-pipe. Good local haunts include metro parks such as Battelle Darby, Blendon Woods and Highbanks.

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

Friday, August 4, 2023

Grand old American Elm


A massive American Elm (Ulmus americana), in post-dawn fog, yesterday. This tree is along State Route 104 in Pickaway County, Ohio. It is isolated from other trees in a cornfield; thus, the Dutch Elm Disease has not yet been able to find it. I rue the day it does. For years, I admired an even larger elm 15 miles to the south, but DED finally found it about a decade ago and quickly killed the behemoth.

While Dutch Elm Disease largely kills off elms before they achieve old-growth status (a very few seem to have natural resistance), the tree remains very common. Younger plants are plentiful in bottomland and other moist habitats, but DED invades most of them within a few decades. The days of grand old American Elms lining boulevards and forming sylvan pergolas over the street are long gone. But the young wild plants continue on with at least some of elms' long-evolved duties. Many of them still attain fruiting age, and their samaras are avidly consumed by a variety of songbirds. A large number of insects evolved specialized associations with elm bark, wood, and foliage, perhaps most notably some moth species such as Double-toothed Prominent (Nerice bidentata) and Elm Sphinx (Ceratomia amyntor).

One animal that has been largely shut out by the loss of ancient old elms is the Baltimore Oriole. The colorful blackbirds were quite fond of weaving their ornate nests into the lax outer branches of mature elms. They still do, if a specimen can be found. I would not be surprised if a pair of orioles is using the tree in my photo as a home site. It's a relatively short flight to other large trees across the road, and for the orioles it might be worth the travel to utilize an all too rare opportunity to use an ancestral nest tree.

PHOTO NOTE: I always look forward to driving by this tree on southbound commutes, and yesterday dawned mostly clear, but with thick fog in places, especially as I drove south. I figured there might be dramatic lighting and mist by the time that I reached the elm, which was a bit after 6:30 am (the early bird often gets the worm, in photography). Sure enough, light veils of mist enshrouded the tree, and the barely arisen sun cast interesting colors in the sky. I pulled off and clipped the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 II to my R5 and set out on foot looking for angles. A 70-200mm lens is a staple for many photographers due to its useful versatility and I have had mine for many years now and use it a lot. Mostly for landscapes, and also botanical photography of a wide array of subjects. I'll often put a 25mm extension tube on to enable closer focusing and shoot all manner of small plants. No extension tube necessary for this elm, nor tripod. While I generally prefer prime lenses over zooms, in cases like this it is nice to have the ability to fine-tune the composition with just a twist of the wrist. This image is uncropped. Settings were f/8, ISO 200, 1/100, at 105mm, with in-lens image stabilization turned on.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

A brief essay on hummingbird moths

A Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) approaches Wild Bergamot flowers

A brief essay on hummingbird moths

Columbus Dispatch
July 30, 2023

Jim McCormac

Many a person has marveled over tiny “hummingbirds” visiting their flowers but hit a brick wall when trying to identify them. Leafing through a bird field guide won’t help. One needs a moth guide to put a name to these “hummers.”

The source of their fascination – and confusion – are hummingbird clearwing moths. These insects represent a fascinating case of convergent evolution. Just as real hummingbirds do, these lepidopteran speedsters specialize in extracting nectar from flowers while on the wing. Thus, they have developed many of the characteristics of real hummingbirds and look much like them.

In Ohio, there are two species: hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe) and snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis). Both are common and found statewide. The former is slightly larger, suffused with reddish on the wings and body, and has yellowish legs. Snowberry clearwings are blacker with dark legs. They belong to the sphinx moth family, which includes about 53 species in Ohio.

I recently visited Kamama Prairie in Adams County, a gorgeous property owned by the Arc of Appalachia. It is floristically diverse and contains many rare plant species. My aim this trip was to photograph botanical gems like scaly blazing-star, false aloe and grooved flax.

A big patch of wild bergamot near the parking lot caught my eye. This common mint is a magnet for pollinators, and these plants had attracted the usual complement of bumblebees, myriad smaller native bees and others. But what stopped me in my tracks were hummingbird moths. Up to a dozen were in view simultaneously.

Not one to miss good photo ops, my focus shifted from plants to moths. Both hummingbird clearwing and snowberry clearwing moths were present, although the former outnumbered the latter. They’re surprisingly difficult to photograph well. To say hummingbird moths are fleet of wing would be an understatement. They seldom tarry long, and at full whirl can beat their wings a remarkable 85 times a second. In comparison, a ruby-throated hummingbird normally generates about 55 flaps per second. Fast camera work is required to freeze the action, and I worked at shutter speeds ranging from 1/4000 to 1/8000 of a second.

I knew a big patch of the rare (in Ohio) tall larkspur grew in the prairie, and before long, I headed that way. The statuesque larkspur can grow to 5 feet or more in height and are crowned with elongate racemes containing dozens of beautiful flowers.

Hummingbird moths are also smitten with larkspur, and I didn’t have long to wait for opportunities to photograph them visiting the flowers. It’s amazing to watch a moth approach a flower, unfurl its amazingly long proboscis, and deftly plumb the depths of the corolla, rapidly locating the nectar reward.

One need not visit a remote Adams County prairie to see hummingbird moths. It’s easy to entice them to your own property, even in urban and suburban environments. All that’s needed is a bit of botanical magic.

The caterpillars of hummingbird moths feed mostly on members of the honeysuckle family, but not nasty non-native invasives such as Amur or Japanese honeysuckles. Good natives that are easy to find in the nursery trade include various viburnums, and my favorite is arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum). A particularly showy option is trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), a vining plant with stunning orange-red flowers that also lure real hummingbirds. Coralberry (Symphoricarpos albus) and dwarf honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera) are also great host plants.

Once appropriate host plants are established, all one needs are good nectar plants for the moths. In addition to the aforementioned wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), others include bee-balm (Monarda didyma), various native phloxes (spotted phlox, also known as Phlox maculata, is a great one) and wood mints in the genus Blephilia.

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 Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis) taps bergamot nectar