Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Bathroom Moth Fly

The festively painted latrine building at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, at the jumping off spot for hikes way out onto the dikes surrounding the large, impounded marshes. I'm not sure when the latrine got this fancy wrapping, but it looks good. Sort of the artistic equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig, perhaps, but who's complaining?

I made an epic trip to the western Lake Erie marshes back on August 18, mostly seeking birds. There were plenty of those to be found, and I managed many nice photographs of shorebirds and other avian subjects. There had been a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck in the marshes to the north of the art latrine, and I hoofed a few miles around the dikes in a futile quest for that, along with my friend Kathy Cubert, who I had run into at Howard Marsh. Kathy did get to see these little gems that I fortuitously stumbled into that morning.

Anyway, before embarking on the Ottawa trek, I nipped into the art latrine, and made another fortuitous discovery that is the subject of this post.

The entrances to the art latrine, boys on right, girls on left. This side sports the coolest art, too, what with the Bald Eagle, Blanding's Turtle, American Water Lotus and other Ottawa NWR biota. I entered on the right, and for purposes of this study it must be noted that I did not go into the other side.

The latrine's interior. Rather grim in comparison to the building's gaudy exterior, but nonetheless good habitat for one of our most interesting and resilient insects.

NOTE: I did not enter the latrine camera in hand. Only after discovering the subjects of this post during my brief, legitimate visit within did I return with camera gear. Two lenses were employed during this shoot: Canon's superb 16-35mm f/2.8L ultra-wide angle, and the workhorse (for me) 100mm f/2.8L macro lens. My major concern with this shoot was normal people seeing me and questioning why I'd be lurking in such a place with fancy camera gear. It could be hard to explain, and somewhat awkward but as fate would have it, it was a slow day at the marsh and no interlopers came along.

As I stood at the latrine, I noticed that the stark white walls were bespeckled with little dark dots. Upon closer inspection, I saw that they were amazing little "moths", except I knew that they were not actually moths. As it turned out, the specks were Bathroom Moth Flies (Clogmia albipunctata)! Well, this was quite exciting, and I know I would have to photo-document the wee beasts. How I've managed to overlook them up to now, I have no idea. I guess I just don't frequent the right places.

The Bathroom Moth Fly, in all its glory. Given the humble roots of its origin, the sewage-loving Dipteran is quite showy and truly does resemble a furry little moth. One regret that I have regarding this shoot - but I will eventually rectify - is that I didn't use my mega-macro Canon MP-E 65mm lens. The moth is only about 2.5mm in length. We're talking a true elfin, and almost beyond the capabilities of my 100mm macro. However, using the MP-E 65mm would have necessitated lugging a tripod into the latrine and guys lugging cameras and tripods into latrines raise suspicion. But who cares - this is in the name of science and next time I shall not be so concerned about what other people think. Besides, I was in a hurry to get out there and seek whistling-ducks.

Bathroom Moth Flies are thought to be tropical in origin, including the American tropics. As people (and our waste) spread throughout the world, so did the fly. Its larvae, which resemble little worms, consume some of the nastiest imaginable decaying organic material. Yep, they're down in that hole in photo #3, an almost unimaginable existence.

For me, the highest use of photography is for telling stories, and I have a lot of experience with that. Believe me, the thought crossed my mind while making this shoot that it would be cool to get photos of the larvae. Well, I'll take one for the team within reason, but doing what would have been necessary for larval shots of Bathroom Moth Flies was not within reason. Apparently, in addition to latrines, dirty kitchen sinks, trash-filled water holes and other undesirable sites, the moth flies also use water-filled tree holes. The latter, I might possibly do larval exploration in. Deep in the bowels of latrines, not.

Next time I cross paths with Bathroom Moth Flies, I am going to work the beautiful adults more thoroughly. Even if it means hauling my rig and tripod into a latrine.

Monday, September 25, 2023

Nesting Pied-billed Grebes

An immature Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) floats on the quiet waters of Howard Marsh, along Lake Erie not far east of Toledo, Ohio.

I visited the newly opened Howard Marsh West back on August 18, and shared some bird images made there in THIS POST. One species that was very conspicuous but did not use photos of in the above-cited post was Pied-billed Grebe. The little divers were everywhere, and several family units were present. I've always been smitten with grebes and tried to take photos when they would come into range.

A juvenile grebe, similar to the one pictured above, takes a test flight. the legs are set far back on the body, the better for diving, but that positioning requires much effort to get aloft. This one ran/skimmed/semi-flew across the water's surface for perhaps a football field's length before settling back in. Apparently just getting a feel for things and checking out the gear for the southward migration to come. Pied-billed Grebes are nocturnal migrants, so it would be unusual to catch one in true flight during daylight hours.

An adult grebe with black bib and hash mark on the bill, with a very young juvenile bird.

The Pied-billed Grebes added significantly to the Howard Marsh soundscape, with adults occasionally delivering their surprisingly loud jungle-like whooping, and the softer but still conspicuous chicken-like peeping of the still stripe-headed juveniles that depend upon their parents to provide food.

An adult grebe steams across the marsh with a freshly caught fish. Destination: a group of loudly peeping youngsters. There seemed to be at least three family units present in the marsh, and the younger chicks peeped nearly nonstop, constantly exhorting their hard-working parents to bring them fish, and MORE fish!

A trio of chicks accompanies this hard-working, probably sleepless adult, putting up a cacophony of peeps the whole time.

Adults fashion a rather crude floating platform of plants matter such as bulrushes, sedges and cattails, and the female lays about a half-dozen eggs atop that. Chicks - and adults - face many predators, including birds of prey, gulls, Raccoons, Snapping Turtles, Mink and others. Nonetheless, a fair number of striped juveniles had made it this far, and hopefully many of them will get to the point that they can take flight and move south when the time comes.

Casting eyes on this new section of Howard Marsh, it's hard to believe that not long ago it was all agricultural land. Prior to conversion for farming, it was wetland, and this project is a true wetland restoration - not creation. The avian response to wetland restoration can be astonishingly fast and this case is stark proof of that. And it will only get better in coming years. Kudos to Metroparks Toledo for their fine work.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Great Plains Ladies'-tresses


Little white spires of orchid flowers dot the open gravelly substrate of the Lakeside Daisy State Nature Preserve in Ottawa County, Ohio. I was exploring some of the most interesting habitats of Lake Erie's western basin last Saturday, and almost on a whim, decided to stop at this site. I was with Shauna Weyrauch, an Ohio State University professor who studies Bobcats, and was introducing her to some of the region's rare plants.

We saw the Great Plains Ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum) before the car was even stopped. They were everywhere; a decided boom year, which happens with some orchids. There were dozens and dozens of plants, hundreds I am sure, if one scoured the preserve's 19 acres in its entirety.

A Great Plains Ladies'-tresses springs from the gravel. Nearly all of its botanical companions are rare, or at least not plants that one finds everywhere. In this photo, the orchid shares space with the federally threatened Lakeside Daisy (Tetraneuris herbacea), Slender Foxglove (Agalinis tenuifolia), and Bristle-leaved Sedge (Carex eburnea). The orchid is listed as Potentially Threatened in Ohio, a watch list category and one step below Threatened.

A close-up of the inflorescence and its beautiful flowers. Ladies'-tresses flowers look like they are crafted from confectioner's sugar. The overall look is enchanting, but to really appreciate these Lilliputs one must drop to the ground to best observe the 6-8-inch-tall spikes.

This map is courtesy of BONAP and shows the distribution of this aptly named orchid. As is true with many prairie and Great Plains species, their eastern terminus is in or around Ohio. The counties shaded in yellow denote rare status. Eleven Ohio counties are highlighted, but the little orchid is certainly extirpated from some of those. And there are precious few locales in the counties where it does remain.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Nature: Brightly colored primrose moths stunning but rarely spotted in Ohio


Primrose moths blend well on primrose flower buds/Jim McCormac

Nature: Brightly colored primrose moths stunning but rarely spotted in Ohio

Columbus Dispatch
September 17, 2023

Jim McCormac

On Aug. 18, I was slowly cruising an Ottawa County rural lane bordering Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge encompasses about 7,000 acres along the shore of Lake Erie, east of Toledo. Birds were my primary quarry, and I was armed with large telephoto lenses with which to photograph them.

In places, the roadsides were awash with the bright lemony blossoms of common evening-primrose (Oenothera biennis). This native plant can reach 4-5 feet in height, and sport dozens of blooms. I was keeping a casual eye on the primrose flowers, hoping to luck into a holy grail of the moth world.

Suddenly, an out of place jot of bright pink on a primrose flower caught my eye. Birds forgotten, I pulled the car off the road and ran over to investigate. Yes! It was a primrose moth sticking from the flower, and a closer look revealed yet another crammed within the blossom.

The primrose moth (Schinia florida) is a truly stunning insect. It is pink and yellow in all the right places, which helps it blend with the colors of its host plant. Further aiding in their disguise is the behavior of the primrose flower. They open toward dusk and bloom through the night. By doing so, the plant attracts moth pollinators.

After the sun rises and the day gets lighter, the primrose flowers close up. Primrose moths alight on the flowers prior to daybreak, and eventually the flower petals fold over them. The little moths are then ensconced in colorful floral sleeping bags, largely hidden from view.

Sometimes primrose moths spend their days resting upon the colorful pink and green primrose buds. The moth’s seemingly garish coloration serves it well when hiding on such colorful substrates.

The lepidopteran nut does not fall far from the primrose tree, and primrose moths live out their entire life cycle in close proximity to their host plant. Female moths lay eggs, up to 200 of them, on young primrose flower buds. Tiny caterpillars soon hatch and begin feeding on the buds.

Caterpillars grow with rapidity, molting five times over the course of their growth and emerging from each molt far larger than the previous stage. While the caterpillar is brownish during the first stage — or instar — by the last stage, it is bright pink. It has also increased its overall mass hundreds of times over the tiny first stage form.

When mature, the caterpillar climbs to the ground, finds suitably soft soil and burrows in. It overwinters and pupates in the ground and will emerge the following summer as a beautiful pink and yellow moth to commence the cycle anew.

Primrose moths seem to be rare in Ohio, and I don’t know why. I have only seen them a few times, despite having scanned thousands of primrose flowers over the years. All my moth-oriented comrades report the same lack of results. And a check of iNaturalist – the enormous citizen science database of flora and fauna – reveals relatively few Ohio records.

Perhaps the moths are just so adept at camouflaging themselves that people miss them. But bright pink and yellow winged creatures that resemble lepidopteran Teletubbies tend to catch one’s eye when they are out and about. It may be that primrose moths do not come to lights at night, as so many moths do, and thus aren’t easy to find during the nocturnal hours when they are active.

But moth-ers to our east and northeast seem to find plenty, based on iNaturalist reports. Yet common evening-primrose is also abundant in Ohio, so it isn’t a shortage of the stunning little moth’s host plant that causes its apparent scarcity in the Buckeye state.

Moth enigmas like this are not hard to find. Their diurnal counterparts the butterflies are far better-known and studied. In comparison, moths are very poorly known, even bright pink and yellow ones. But only about 140 butterfly species have been found in Ohio, while we host at least 3,000 moth species and probably far more species than that. Most moth species remain largely unstudied.

If you wish to learn more about the fascinating world of moths, I am giving a program titled "Mysterious Moths" at the Grandview Heights Public Library at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. The library is at 1685 West First Avenue, the event is free, and all are welcome. Copies of my new book, "Gardening for Moths," written along with Chelsea Gottfried, will be available.

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 pair of primrose moths rest inside a flower/Jim McCormac

Friday, September 8, 2023

Howard Marsh birds

As the name of this blog has "birds" in it, it's high time that I posted a few. So, some birds follow, but first a brief intro.

On August 18, I made a long overdue trip to the marshes of western Lake Erie, just east of Toledo, Ohio. The primary target was Howard Marsh Metropark, a superb example of a restored wetland owned and managed by Metroparks Toledo. Metroparks acquired the 1,000-acre property in 2008, and a few years later opened the original wetland component on the east side of Howard Road. The avian response was instant and spectacular.

Then, just this year, phase II on the west side of Howard Road opened. Again, the birds, both migrants and breeders, took to the site with a vengeance. Build it and they will come, especially if a wetland restoration on a site that used to be wetlands.

One could make the case that various regional and county metroparks systems are now at the forefront of conservation on the state level. Funded by levies and usually overwhelmingly supported by the public, park districts such as Metroparks Toledo are doing lots of great things. Their management practices and goals are progressive, and their staff tend to be ecologically literate and in tune to conservation of biodiversity, both flora and fauna. Howard Marsh is a shining example, and well worth a visit.

The noisy gakkering of the world's largest tern, the Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia) greeted me upon arrival. A noisy mob was roosting on a mudflat, including many juveniles.

An incoming tern drops a fish. It deftly re-snagged it midair a moment later. This parent was heading towards the shoal with its complement of loudly begging juveniles. Young Caspian Terns follow their parents around for months, depending on them for food. Apparently, the learning curve of aerial fishing is steep and takes time to master.

A hen Blue-winged Teal (Spatula discors) shows off her namesake patch. Many Blue-winged Teal were congregated here. Some of them probably bred locally. This is the least hardy of our fowl: early to migrate south, late to return in spring, and almost unheard of in winter. Most blue-wings winter south of the U.S., with some venturing all the way to South America.

A Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) teeters around Howard Marsh. It was one of about a half-dozen that I saw. This fantastical shorebird with bubblegum-pink legs is now a regular sight in Ohio. Stilts are conspicuous extroverts and call more attention to themselves with loud, grating calls. By 1900, unchecked market hunting had greatly reduced their numbers, but over a century later, stilts have increased greatly. Their comeback includes recolonizing former ranges such as the western Lake Erie marshes, where they now nest sparingly, such as at Howard Marsh.

Lots of shorebird species were present at Howard Marsh, and as usual in late summer the yellowlegs were common and conspicuous. Lesser Yellowlegs (photo below) outnumbered Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca, above photo) by a good margin, also to be expected. These are adult birds. The juveniles migrate later and will start to appear by August's end. Shorebirds are one of the marvels of bird migration. Many of our sandpiper and plover species breed in Arctic or near-Arctic regions and make incredible migrations thousands of miles southward to wintering grounds, a few species traveling nearly to the southern tip of the globe. And the juveniles do this without parental guidance, utilizing a pre-programmed built-in GPS system.

Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes)

A juvenile Wilson's Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor) forages in Howard Marsh. All three phalarope species are rarities in Ohio and always a treat to see. The other two, Red-necked and Red phalaropes, breed in the far north, well into Polar Bear country. Wilson's Phalarope nests primarily in the prairie pothole region of the western U.S. and adjacent Canada. It's a rare nester in the western marshes of Lake Erie, and perhaps that's where this one was spawned. Phalaropes often swim like little ducks, rapidly spinning in circles. This creates a vortex that pulls prey to the surface.

I look forward to more trips to Howard Marsh, and highly encourage a visit.

Friday, September 1, 2023

Red-footed Cannibal Fly


I got the opportunity to go afield last Sunday (August 27, 2023) with Iris Copen and Shaun Pogacnik, two of the Midwest's best field botanists. We hit remote sites in Jackson, Lawrence, and Pike counties in southern Ohio. Plants were the main quarry, and we saw scads of cool vegetable matter, highlighted by a new state record of a particularly beautiful species, the Maryland Meadow-beauty (Rhexia mariana). Iris and Shaun had discovered it a few days prior. I'll write about that one and share photos in a later post.

We didn't ignore bugs (one should never ignore bugs) on this epic botanical foray. This beast pictured above was an entomological highlight: the Red-footed Cannibal Fly (Promachus rufipes). Savage and capable hunters, cannibal flies spot prey flying by from their perches, roar out with a loud buzzing flight, and overtake and grab the victim in an Iron Maiden death grasp with those spiny legs. I believe the one in the photo has captured a bumblebee (Bombus sp.) It then pierces the prey with a syringe-like proboscis, injecting a powerful neurotoxin that causes near instant paralysis. Other chemicals rapidly dissolve the prey's innards, which the cannibal fly sucks out through its proboscis like a ghoulish milk shake.

These big robber flies are effective predators and can take down surprisingly large prey. CLICK HERE for an apparent case of one that captured a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

In the photo above, a pair of Red-footed Cannibal Flies mate on a Virginia Pine branch. They can actually fly when in tandem like this, and the spectacle of nearly six inches of loudly buzzing bugs shooting past one's head is enough to make an entomophobe faint.

We felt fortunate to see a number of cannibal flies on this day. Interestingly, perhaps, they were all this species. There is a very similar species, Promachus hinei, which has redder legs and it seems to be widespread and at least locally common. But all of the cannibal flies we could see well enough to identify were P. rufipes and nary a hinei was to be seen.