Sunday, October 29, 2023

Nature: "Tis the season to spot dark-eyed juncos in central Ohio


A male dark-eyed junco snacks on poison ivy berries/Jim McCormac

Nature: "Tis the season to spot dark-eyed juncos in central Ohio

Columbus Dispatch
October 29, 2023

Jim McCormac

“…there is not an individual in the Union who does not know the little Snow-bird…”
− John James Audubon (1831)

I suspect the great naturalist and pioneer ornithologist was optimistic in his estimation of junco familiarity. His “snow-bird” is now formally known as the dark-eyed junco, and back in Audubon’s time, people were far more attuned to the environment. Many if not most people probably were acquainted with the jaunty slate-colored sparrows.

Even today, with the popularity of bird feeding, lots of people know the junco. But in central Ohio, they’re primarily winter visitors. Juncos arrive on the first gusts of nippy fall winds from northern breeding grounds. I ran into my first dark-eyed juncos of fall just a few days ago, as nighttime temperatures began to dip towards the freezing mark.

Unlike many of its sparrow brethren, which are skulkers and shrinking violets, dark-eyed juncos are extroverted and easily observed. Adult males are a rich dark slate color above, with snowy underbelly and a pink bill. Their white tail feathers are often flashed conspicuously. Females and juveniles are more muted and infused with brownish hues.

There are plenty of dark-eyed juncos to see. The population, which breeds strictly in the U.S. and Canada, numbers about 630 million individuals, or about two juncos for every person. While juncos nest throughout the boreal forest of the northern U.S. and Canada, birds in northerly populations retreat southward in winter. These are the birds that we see at our feeders.

Ohio lies at the southern limits of the junco’s breeding range, with isolated nesters in the extreme northeast, especially Geauga and Lake counties. A small population breeds in Mohican state forest. But if you receive juncos at your feeders, the likelihood is that they hail from remote northern forests.

Over its vast North American range, the dark-eyed junco varies markedly in appearance. So much so that until 1973 it was divided into five species: gray-headed junco, Guadalupe junco, Oregon junco, slate-colored junco (our birds), and white-winged junco. Typical examples of each form are easily identified, but they all hybridize and produce fertile offspring, which is why the five were lumped into one species. The Oregon subspecies appears rarely but regularly in Ohio. Adults are recognizable by a black hood that contrasts with pinkish-brown flanks.

If you feed birds, you’ll almost certainly attract juncos. The jaunty little sparrows usually feed on the ground, often flashing their bright white tail feathers. Many species of birds that are habitual ground-foragers have white outer tail feathers. One explanation is that it presents a false flag to bird-hunting raptors like Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks. The raptor fixates on the junco’s bright tail feathers, seizes those, and the junco escapes, sans tail. But tail feathers grow back, and the junco lives to see another day.

The roughest of winter weather does not deter tough juncos. They essentially live in a sleeping bag of feathers, the dense down feathers shingled over by sturdy waterproof contour feathers. Juncos can stave off the coldest of Ohio temperatures. If snow covers food sources, they kick through it like little chickens to uncover the seeds.

Come mid-March, dark-eyed juncos start their northward journey. By May, nearly all of them have moved north, leaving us with to deal with a five-month junco hiatus. Throw some seed out for the snowbirds, and enjoy them will you can.

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 dark-eyed junco, or snowbird/Jim McCormac

Monday, October 23, 2023

Fall colors

The autumnal plumage of Sugar Maples (Acer saccharum), especially, enliven a backwoods Adams County lane. One of the great delights of living in the eastern deciduous forest region is the annual coloring of tree foliage. Ohio is a particularly good place to bear witness to this phenomenon, and especially so in the hill country of southern Ohio, where I made this shot yesterday.

Fall colors were not yet peak, and if high winds don't remove most of the leaves between now and then, I would say that next weekend should be prime time to observe fall leaf color, at least in central and southern Ohio.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Moth Talk: October 24, Columbus, Ohio. All are welcome!

I'm giving a talk on the amazing world of moths for Columbus Audubon at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, hard on the banks of the Scioto River near downtown Columbus (Ohio), on Tuesday, October 24. Doors open at 6:30 pm, and the show gets on the road around 7 pm. It's free, and all are welcome. Just show up if you want to come.

This talk is loosely based on the new(ish) book Gardening for Moths, by Chelsea Gottfried and me. That book (hit the shelves in late March 2023) features a robust introduction that makes the case as to why moths are important. And that's mostly what I will do with this talk: build the case for the importance of moths and how they interplay with bats, birds, other animals, our native flora, and more. Our (mostly) nocturnal butterflies are fascinating on many levels, and do not get nearly the attention that they deserve.

This LINK has all of the details that you need. Would love to see you there!

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Rough green snake spotted in southern Ohio

A rough green snake lurks in a wild lettuce plant/Jim McCormac

Rough green snake spotted in southern Ohio

October 15, 2023

Jim McCormac

Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will injure you. − Luke 10:19

While 26 snake species slither about in the Buckeye State, they are largely out of sight and mind. That’s probably a good thing to many people, as ophidiophobia (human fear of snakes) is quite common. More importantly, it’s far better for the snakes that relatively few people clap eyes on them. Humans are, by far, a snake’s worst enemy.

Bad PR for serpents began at least as far back as the Bible, which is rich in anti-snake passages. Snakes are clearly used as a metaphor for evil, which is entirely underserved. The popularity of that ancient tome has colored people’s perceptions of one of our most interesting animal groups for millennia.

We directly persecute snakes, for no good cause. In Ohio, the overwhelming majority of our reptilian wrath is directed at non-venomous species, which constitute 23 of our 26 species. Common victims of humanoid malice are species like the eastern gartersnake and gray ratsnake.

Both species are utterly harmless. Even the three venomous species in Ohio are generally quite mellow. I’ve encountered the eastern copperhead, Massasauga (rattlesnake) and timber rattlesnake numerous times over the years, and in all cases their docility was notable.

One must work to run afoul of a snake. Far easier to leave them be, which is just how they would have it.

To me and many of my comrades, encountering snakes of any species is always a highlight of an outing. But a northern rough green snake (Opheodrys aestivus)? Rare indeed will be the animal that will one-up that experience.

Back on Sept. 8, I and 15 or so others were ambling along an old road through Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio. We were attending a native plant conference, and this was a nocturnal field trip to seek creatures of the night. Suddenly out of the dark came a shout. Denise Arnett Ruby had discovered a green snake!

Everyone rushed over to ogle the handsome serpent. Rough green snakes are diurnal, spending their days slinking through low branches of trees and shrubs seeking caterpillars, crickets, spiders and other invertebrate fare. When threatened, the lime-green snake freezes and becomes nearly impossible to see amongst the foliage.

Green snakes sleep at night and are often easier to find under a flashlight beam. That’s how Denise spotted this one, and we were all beneficiaries. It was a “life snake” for nearly the entire group.

All 26 species of Ohio’s snakes have declined since the arrival of settlers, many of them alarmingly so. The rough green snake has probably decreased more than most. It is a southerner at the northern limits of its range in southern Ohio. Historically, it was documented in 14 counties. Now, it is only known to be in five.

Direct human persecution probably isn’t a major factor in this case. Highly arboreal green snakes are just too secretive and hard to spot and tend to occur in sparsely populated areas. They favor woodland edges and forest openings, and that’s the habitat I’ve seen all of the 15-20 individuals I’ve encountered over the years.

Forestry management practices, particularly logging, has undoubtedly decreased their numbers. In addition to degradation of the green snake’s woodland habitat, logging operations can destroy or damage nest sites: hollow logs, tree cavities, deep leaf litter, rocks etc. Outright development of forested habitat, or conversion of woods to agriculture or other open habitats, is likely even a bigger factor in the snake’s decline.

Our green snake was a bit perturbed at being roused from its slumber, and wriggled about for a bit. It eventually settled in and allowed the group to closely inspect it and get photos. The snake made no effort to bite, and such an attempt would be rare indeed. I’ve handled a number of them and not one has tried to strike.

Conservation of large, wooded ecosystems such as the 70,000-acre Shawnee State Forest is essential to protecting sylvan creatures such as the rough green snake. That also applies to wise forest management, which should include conservation of all native biodiversity.

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

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

A fine toad


Our group ran across this whopper of an American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) while on a nocturnal field trip in Shawnee State Forest (Scioto County, Ohio) on September 10, 2023. I could not resist making images of the big amphibian, and the toad cooperated nicely as they often do. Of course, I toad her not to move and fortunately she toad the line nicely. I've got scads of toad imagery, but can seldom resist new portraits, especially when the model is as fine as this one was.

I do appreciate the articulating back screen of my camera (Canon R5), which allowed me to set the camera on the ground for the shot and still see the composition by merely folding the screen out and looking down at that. To further ease the task, I have the touch screen set so that when I touch a spot on the screen, the camera automatically focuses on that spot then takes the image. This is all getting almost too easy.

I've spent my fair share of time in pre-articulating screen days prostrate on hard rocky substrates to get on my subjects' level, and that ain't much fun. I have zero qualms about going prostrate for photos and do so all the time. In fact, it's one of my favorite positions for photographing wee beasts, as it's important to be on your subject's level. But going flat on those hard rocky roads with big pebbles jabbing you? No thanks and I'm grateful for camera technology that sometimes makes that unnecessary.

Thursday, October 5, 2023

American Bolas Spider

Back on September 14, I visited an interesting property in rural Pike County, Ohio (well, I guess nearly ALL of Pike County is rural) to assist with a one-year bioblitz project spearheaded by John Howard. I'd been trying to get there all summer, but this is the year of talks for me, thanks to the new Gardening for Moths book, and the speaking gigs have thrown wrenches in many plans (but I'm not complaining).

John and the scores of experts he's had to the property have found a mountain of species, and I'll hope to report on that after the project has concluded. John, Stefanie Paeg and I roamed the property most of the day and managed to extricate some new species for the list - mostly insects and plants. Later, spider expert Rich Bradley joined us, as did Laura Hughes and Vince Howard. Towards day's end, photographer Sam James finally caught up with us way out on the trail, and shared news of a great find that he made soon after heading out on foot.

This is Sam's find, as it appears from 15 feet away. As you've probably guessed, it's the little white blob amongst all of the Black Willow (Salix nigra) foliage.

We move in closer, and voila! The apparent bird dropping reveals itself to be an American Bolas Spider (Mastophora hutchinsoni). Bolas spiders are always notable finds, and generally everyone, at least in my circle of friends, wants to see them. During the day, the females, which are much larger and more conspicuous than males, hide in plain sight atop leaves. From almost any distance they resemble fresh bird droppings and thus presumably escape the attention of would-be predators. The bulbous waxy-white body, intermixed with brownish tones, looks remarkably similar to bird scat.

Staring straight into the grill of the spider, we see her legs neatly tucked around her head. This one appears to have spun a pad of silk which she's sitting atop. I do not know what that's about, but perhaps to help hold her in place if the wind starts buffeting her perch. She'll remain like this all day, so we made sure to re-visit her after nightfall.

When we returned, she had already caught a moth, even though it was barely past dusk. Her Lepidopteran victim, enshrouded in silk, hangs behind her. Bolas spiders, at least from my limited experience, do not make much of a web. Basically, they weave a flimsy trellis of silk lines from which they hang and hunt from. Given their highly specialized moth-hunting skills, a fancy web is not necessary.

We stopped back a while later, and the bolas spider had just captured another moth. She's fangs deep in the freshly captured victim in this shot.

Bolas spiders in the genus Mastophora - there are about 50 species - occur only in the Americas. They specialize on moths and use some amazing tactics to capture them. The female spider emits pseudo-pheromones from its body that mirror those emitted by certain female moth species. The males of those species detect those airborne false flags, and thinking a female of their species is nearby, flutter ever closer. When the moth comes into range, the bolas spider flicks a strong silken strand tipped with a sticky globule at it. If her aim is true, the moth is snared, reeled in, killed, and eaten. In times of plenty, as apparently was the case this night, she will cache victims as in the previous photo.

I never saw her line, or bolas, on this night, but presumably she used one to capture these moths. For a good image of a bolas spider's bolas, CLICK HERE for the story of an encounter with a Toadlike Bolas Spider, (M. phrynosoma).

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Nature: Rare Maryland meadow-beauty spotted in Lawrence County


Maryland meadow-beauty (Rhexia marilandica), about three miles west of Lake Vesuvius in Lawrence County, Ohio, on August 27, 2023/Jim McCormac

Nature: Rare Maryland meadow-beauty spotted in Lawrence County

Columbus Dispatch
October 1, 2023

Jim McCormac

Back on Aug. 27, I had the pleasure of going afield with Iris Copen and Shaun Pogacnik, two of Ohio’s finest field botanists. Shaun, 27, is an Ohio University student, and Iris is 25 and a recent graduate of OU. The two Bobcats are employed as seasonal botanists by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Natural Areas and Preserves, the agency that owns and manages Ohio’s system of state nature preserves.

We started our foray near the village of Pedro, in Lawrence County. The heavily forested county includes the southernmost point in the state: South Point, on the banks of the Ohio River. Despite covering 453 square miles, there are only about 58,000 residents in Lawrence County.

Just two days prior, Iris and Shaun had made an epic discovery, and we wasted no time trekking to the locale. There is a saying in field botany: The best finds come by following the path of greatest resistance. This find lived up to the old adage, requiring a hike along muddy trails, often pocked with deep mud puddles that had to bushwhacked around.

After a mile and half, we reached ground zero, and Ohio’s newly discovered population of Maryland meadow-beauty (Rhexia mariana). This southern species occurs most plentifully along the Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains, from Pennsylvania to Texas. It becomes increasingly rare northward in the interior, reaching its limits in Kentucky and southernmost Indiana. This Ohio record is a significant range extension.

When Iris and Shaun first saw this locale on Aug. 25, the pink flowers of a vibrant stand of Virginia meadow-beauty (Rhexia virginica) quickly caught their eye. This was an exciting find, as the plant is listed as potentially threatened by ODNR, and is known from only a handful of counties. But Iris noticed one of the meadow-beauty stands didn’t look quite right, investigated more closely and saw that it was the similar Maryland meadow-beauty. She knew this plant well from extensive field work in Florida, where it is common.

I was impressed by the botanists’ intrepidness in venturing back to this place, as, for the most part, the habitat didn’t appear especially conducive to major finds, and it was a long slog to reach the site. But Shaun and Iris are well-known for going far afield over tough terrain. In fact, on Sept. 12, 2021, they discovered another Ohio first, also in Lawrence County: hairy lipfern (Myriopteris lanosa). Finding that diminutive fern involved an arduous mile-long brush-beating climb to a cliff high above the village of Rome, with the hills of West Virginia in the distance.

For a plant-hunter, discovering first state records of native plants is the equivalent of a gold medal. I know well the elation that comes with significant discoveries. During my field botany career, I managed to discover or co-discover a dozen new species to Ohio, and nine extirpated species (plants thought to have disappeared from the state). Such finds are a botanist’s high.

New discoveries are increasingly hard to make, as botanists have been scouring Ohio for two centuries. Increasingly, one must be willing to venture way off the beaten path, often in remote parts of the state. An encyclopedic knowledge of flora is a must, as many newer finds involve species with very similar brethren that confuse the issue. Additionally, plant taxonomy and nomenclature is increasingly complex, as species are split into multiples or combined into one, families are subdivided or lumped, and scientific names seem to change with the seasons.

Every time I am afield with Iris and Shaun, I feel like I just attended a master’s level course on botany. Both have an impressive command of the current state of North American botany, incredibly discerning eyes, and no fear of going far afield on foot through all manner of conditions. Both have already made many exceptional plant (and moss and lichen) finds, and they are just getting started. I look forward to their next great finds.

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

Maryland meadow-beauty (Rhexia marilandica) in Lawrence County, Ohio, August 27, 2023/Jim McCormac