Thursday, February 29, 2024

The first wildflowers erupt


Ivy-leaved Speedwell (Veronica hederifolia) was in full bloom on south-facing slopes of the Ohio River last Saturday, February 24. Shauna Weyrauch and I visited the deep south of Ohio last weekend seeking, among other things, early flora. This species was not a primary target. Little Eurasian weeds such as this speedwell are always among the first flowers to bloom, and some of them, such as Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) can be found in flower any month of the year. On this excursion, native plants were our goal, but I could not resist an image of the showy speedwell flower.

Our first stop was the Arc of Appalachia's Chalet Nivale Preserve in Adams County. The "Nivale" in the name refers to Trillium nivale, or Snow Trillium. Thousands of the tiny lily relatives occur there, and it is the first of Ohio's seven trillium species (used to have eight. Trillium cernuum is considered extirpated and was only documented once, in 1879 in Lake County) to bloom.

While February 24 might seem early for this species and the ones that follow to be in flower, such enthusiasm to burst from the soil is not atypical. We saw maybe 30 trilliums in flower, out of the many thousands that occur at this site. Unless there is heavy snow and extreme cold in late February - an ever-rarer occurrence, it seems - one can nearly always find a few ambitious specimens of our earliest species to bloom.

A brave Virginia Bluebell (Mertensia virginica) thrusts forth a flower and several buds. Our next stop was the Arc of Appalachia's Ohio River Bluffs Preserve, which overlooks the Ohio River and the hills of Kentucky. The steep south-facing wooded slopes always spawn early wildflowers, often a week or more before other sites in southern Ohio.

The Bluffs are famed for their huge carpets of bluebells, and they'll probably be peaking around mid-March. Scores of densely tufted rosettes were out of the ground on our visit, but almost none had managed to produce blooms like the hardy specimen in the photo. It was about 28 F when I took the picture.
Unsurprising but always welcome was the aptly named Harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa). The elfin parsley is to be expected by late February, but while there were scores of rosettes, this was one of few flowering specimens that we saw.

PHOTOGRAPHY NOTES: When shooting wildflowers, it is important to get on the level of the subject. I sometimes handhold - if I can get a fast enough shutter speed - and have the camera's body on the ground. That's what I was doing here. Harbinger-of-spring is only a few inches in height, and to get the beautiful creamy bokeh (background) there cannot be distractions like leaf litter immediately behind the subject. Plus, getting on the subject's level creates an intimacy lost when standing or kneeling and shooting down on the plant.

More often than not, though, I prefer to have the camera mounted on a tripod. And the Oben CTT-1000 is killer for wee subjects, the best I've yet found. It is carbon fiber, weighs nearly nothing, is highly adjustable and splays flat on the ground if you want. This micro-tripod is only about $90, and so small it tucks easily in my backpack. Jeff B. has them RIGHT HERE and will promptly ship it to your door.

The advantage of having the rig stabilized on a tripod is that my favorite settings can be used. I like to shoot at very low ISO settings, usually 100 or 200, and that can mean really low shutter speeds. Somewhat offsetting that is the wider apertures that I favor for plants, which usually range from f/4 to f/7.1, rarely smaller. As long as wind isn't a factor, shutter speed is irrelevant when working from a tripod. This Harbinger-of-spring shot was an exception to my standard apertures: I shot it at f/9 (at 1/30 second), to get a bit more depth through the inflorescence, and because there were no potentially distracting objects behind my subject. With no need to hold the camera, I can use two-second timer delay, so that I'm not even touching the camera when it fires. The Canon R5 has the ability to just touch the rear screen, and it instantly focuses on the spot that you touched and then immediately initiates the shot process. Two seconds later, the camera fires. Flash? Never, or nearly never, if the subject is a plant. Flash typically imparts a harshness to the subject, and harshness is not what I'm after with wildflowers.

One our most beautiful members of the Liliaceae, White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum). It leads the parade of trout lilies - two other species occur in Ohio - and it isn't atypical to find a few in flower by late February. Come early to mid-March and on into April, the two yellow species will be in flower in southern Ohio, and one of them is one of our rarest plants, the Goldenstar (Erythronium rostratum). The Arc of Appalachia (incredible conservation organization!) owns the Gladys Riley Golden Star Lily Preserve in western Scioto County, and it is a must-visit place when its namesake Goldenstars are in peak bloom. There are thousands of them, and one would not suspect it is rare in Ohio after seeing them all at this site. But there is only one other much smaller locale in nearby Adams County. The peak bloom varies a bit from year to year, but usually is between mid to late March, although in years past I've seen flowers in early March, and into the first week of April.

Friday, February 23, 2024

Nature/Opinion: American Ornithological Society set to rename honorific birds

A juvenile Cooper's hawk, perhaps upset that its name is changing/Jim McCormac 

Nature/Opinion: American Ornithological Society set to rename honorific birds

Columbus Dispatch
February 18, 2024

NOTES: The following column takes an oppositional viewpoint to the initiative launched by the American Ornithological Society (AOS) on November 1 of last year. While my initial gut reaction to this mass renaming was negative, I waited some time to think about this, and better process all sides before opining. While from nearly all metrics opponents probably far outnumber proponents, that didn't weigh into my feelings about this matter (see this paper that analyzed hundreds of comments on a Washington Post article using a technique known as Sentiment Analysis). I'm not a big fan of ad populum arguments in general. The masses are often wrong. Nonetheless, probably every article that I have seen that allows reader comments features a majority of negative viewpoints towards the proposal, and that holds for social media posts. Presumably, many or most of the posters that express negativity are part of the demographics that the AOS would like to lure into birding.

To most non-birders, the proposed renaming of honorifically named species is probably a mild absurdity - something straight out of the ONION. To those of us within the circle, it is more serious due to understanding the mass destabilization of ornithological nomenclature that will result. An oft-used argument by proponents is "names change all of the time". In other words, we should be used to shifting nomenclature. But that's not true, at least regarding English (common) names. Since the inaugural AOS (formerly American Ornithological Union) checklist came out in 1886, less than one English name has changed annually on average (see my commentary on warbler names in the column). In contrast, there has been a blizzard of changes with scientific names, but these go largely unnoticed by birders, very few of whom learn those names. English names are far more important in daily communication. With that said, no one that I know of who is against this proposal is against changing names that are demonstrably harmful. A great example of a legitimate change dates back to 2000, when the Oldsquaw was renamed Long-tailed Duck (from Wikipedia: "In 2000, the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) formally adopted the name long-tailed duck, in response to petitioning by a group of biologists who feared that the former name would be offensive to Native American tribes whose help was required for conservation efforts."). We think that any proposed changes should be submitted on a case-by-case basis, as has been the model. Not an arbitrary and capricious mass removal of all eponyms.

While a stated purpose of the mass rebranding is to make birding more appealing to newcomers and less exclusionary to minorities, ironically, I think it will make learning more difficult and thus more exclusionary to new would-be birders. It'll take field guides, scores of online resources, and other learning tools some time to become up to date with the myriad name changes, resulting in confusion on many levels, especially to beginners. Furthermore, there is no as-yet published timetable by the AOS as to when this will all be accomplished. Rumblings are that they will roll out the changes gradually, perhaps taking a decade to implement all of them. And I do not believe they have as yet even decided with certainty what species' names are on the chopping block. It seems to me that before rolling out such a sweeping change, the AOS would have all of their ducks in a row and simultaneously unveil all facets of how this will be done, and which species will be changed. Instead, for whatever reason, they put the cart before the horse.

If you disagree with the AOS's decision, feel free to sign the petitionRIGHT HERE. It currently has over 5,600 signatures (the petition by Bird Names for Birds to the AOS that sparked this had about 180 signatures). The petition site also has a number of interesting statements by leading birders and ornithologists arguing against the change. 

Jim McCormac

The little-known U.S.-based American Ornithological Society (AOS) managed to make news on Nov. 1, 2023. That day, the 2,800-member academic organization announced that it would be changing all honorific names of birds in the Americas. That includes North, Central and South America, and associated islands. In all, the plan involves about 150 species. The AOS (formerly American Ornithological Union) is the long-standing authority for American bird names. A precise timetable for the changes has yet to be established.

In the U.S. and Canada, about 80 species are slated for rebranding, and 35 of them occur — or have occurred — in Ohio. Buckeye State birds include well-known species such as Bonaparte’s gull, Cooper’s hawk, Wilson’s snipe, and — in a double whammy to Wilson — Wilson’s warbler. In all, 35 honorifically named species on the Ohio list, or about 8% of the state list of 445 species, will be renamed.

Why the change? In the words of the AOS: “The AOS commits to changing all English-language names of birds within its geographic jurisdiction that are named directly after people (eponyms), along with other names deemed offensive and exclusionary…”

A group known as Bird Names for Birds was the impetus for the AOS nomenclatural shift, and they state: “Eponyms… and honorific common bird names are problematic because they perpetuate colonialism and the racism associated with it. The names that these birds currently have — for example, Bachman’s sparrow — represent and remember people (mainly white men) who often have objectively horrible pasts and do not uphold the morals and standards the bird community should memorialize.”

There are two major prongs to this movement: 1) Honorees are racist or otherwise bad people, therefore their names are exclusionary, and 2) bird names should be descriptive of the bird.

A major problem with No. 1 is that most people associated with eponymous bird names were not racist, or at least the AOS has not presented many cases for it. The idea seems to be to cast them all out — a wholesale purge of eponyms, ensuring the bad are deleted, even if the good are collateral damage. This decision was rendered by a committee of 19 people. That would be the AOS council, who did not poll birders at large, people in other countries that would be impacted, or even their own membership. In other words, the council was exclusionary.

This clumsy effort to rewrite history is fraught with problems. The aforementioned Alexander Wilson — namesake to the snipe, warbler and three other species — was a passionate ornithologist who lived for birds. He essentially worked himself to death by the age of 47 but not before becoming known as the Father of American Ornithology.

The reverend John Bachman — mentioned above — illustrates the problems of judging people by the standards of two centuries later. While Bachman owned slaves, which should never have been acceptable even in his day but unfortunately was, paradoxically he also was a leader in creating opportunities for Black people. Bachman invited people of color to join his congregation, which many did, and helped Blacks achieve positions that were unattainable at that time. One of his tutees was Daniel Payne, who went on to become a founder of Wilberforce University in Ohio and became one of its first presidents — the first Black college president in the United States.

The idea that honorific bird names are exclusionary is nonsensical. A leading advocate for changing eponymous bird names is field guide author Kenn Kaufman. Ironically, he wrote the following in a post supporting the eponym purge on his eponymously named Kaufman Field Guide blog: “Do eponymous names naturally lead to curiosity about the persons so recognized? I don’t think so. If we were to poll the ornithologists and serious birders of North America, I suspect that not one in a thousand would know who Botteri was (of Botteri’s Sparrow) or who Williamson was (of Williamson’s Sapsucker)… All these names have been there in the field guides and other books for many years, but hardly anyone has been inspired to say, ‘Gee, who was Heermann? Who was Hutton?’”

If no one knows who these people are, how can their names be exclusionary?

The other argument in favor of changing honorific names centers on the opportunity to provide more descriptive names. That opens a robust can of worms. Many non-eponymous names are hardly descriptive. Who knows what mallard means? Or sees the hairs on a hairy woodpecker. Few have seen the “red belly” on a red-bellied woodpecker. Carolina chickadee? They’re common in Ohio. Purple finches are hardly purple. All sparrows sing, not just the song sparrow. Do all these and scores of other non-descriptive names also have to be changed? And re-namers best be cautious. An oft-proposed alternate name for Kirtland’s warbler (named for Ohio naturalist Jared Kirtland) is jack pine warbler. Jack pine’s scientific name is Pinus banksiana. The specific epithet honors English naturalist Sir Joseph Banks. Dig deep enough into his history, and flaws will be found. As I’m sure historians in 2224 will find character defects in many of us.

One huge asset that ornithology has that very few other disciplines in the natural sciences have is a stable system of English names. English bird names are the currency of the masses (in English-speaking places). They allow all of us to speak on the same page, and greatly facilitate learning by newcomers. Furthermore, English names tend to be far more stable than scientific names (which very few birders know). Of the 38 species of breeding warblers in eastern North America (five are eponymously named), 33 still have the same English name as first published in the AOS’s inaugural checklist of North American birds in 1886 (including all five eponyms). Contrarily, 138 years later 31 of those 38 warblers have different scientific names. A large-scale change in English names will result in years of confusion, outdated field guides, and numerous other long-lasting hassles.

Resistance to the proposed AOS name changes has been widespread and opponents probably greatly outnumber proponents. To me and many others, the logic behind purging eponyms is largely baseless — at least its advocates have failed to make much of a case. The logic behind arguments for retaining existing names makes far more sense and maintains long-established stability.

Honorific names permeate science, and elsewhere. Legions of buildings, cities and towns, endowments and scholarships, streets, and much more are named honorifically. If truly bad names exist within these groups, change them as needed. But a blanket purge of honorific bird names by a tiny group of people in one area of the globe — whose changes are unlikely to be widely accepted — smacks of pretentious virtue signaling by out of touch elitists.

To learn more about rationales for changing bird names, visit the AOS website: English Bird Names Project - American Ornithological Society ( For dissenting opinions, including some from leading ornithologists, visit the petition to AOS leadership.

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

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Bird photography talk: The Art and Science of Shooting Birds

I'm giving a talk on bird photography - The Art and Science of Shooting Birds - tomorrow evening, February 21, at 6:30 pm at the Cincinnati Nature Center. It's for the center's camera club, but guests are welcome. It's free to members of CNC; $10 if not. Preregistration is required, and more details in the following link: Cincinnati Nature Center (

Monday, February 5, 2024

Fishing spiders in Ohio? It's true.

A female white-banded fishing spider guards its nest/Jim McCormac

Fishing spiders in Ohio? It's true.

February 4, 2024

Jim McCormac

Arachnophobia, the irrational fear of spiders, is widespread. Some estimates claim that about 6% of the population are arachnophobes. If you are one, my apologies for this column. But you’ve probably already stopped reading.

Spiders are all around us. About 650 species are found in Ohio alone. Numerous species, most likely, are on your property and in your house. In warm seasons, a gentle rain of spiderlings wafts through the air. They disperse to new terrain soon after hatching by “ballooning”; sending out a silken strand that catches a breeze and takes them aloft. Fortunately for the arachnophobe, these spiderlings and the vast majority of spiders go unseen by most people.

Spiders are an important part of food webs – both as predator and prey – and engage in amazing behavior. Many are artistically painted in showy hues, or are ornate in their markings. Their production of silk and use thereof is highly advanced, and some species have the ability to spin incredibly intricate webs.

On September 7, 2013, I was with a group of colleagues late at night in the wilds of Adams County, Ohio. We were seeking caterpillars, and thus inspecting vegetation with flashlights. Suddenly, my beam picked up the eye shine of a big spider about twenty feet away and eight feet up in a redbud tree. I clambered up on some logs to get on the spider’s level, and was treated to the spectacle of a tarantula-sized nursery web spider guarding a nest.

I knew it was one of the fishing spiders, a group within the nursery web spider family. The family is so-named because the females create silken nests (nurseries) and guard the spiderlings for a week or so until they disperse. Many of the fishing spider species in this group are highly aquatic and can even catch small fish.

But this fishing spider was not like any I had seen. The head was a striking ivory-white, very different than the common fishing spiders that I was familiar with. I took photos, one of which accompanies this article. It didn’t take long to identify it: white-banded fishing spider (Dolomedes albineus). A later literature review showed no Ohio records of this southern species. Major excitement! A new spider for Ohio, and a particularly spectacular one!

A few weeks later I learned that another had been documented near Akron, about the time I found mine. Later yet, it came to light that a white-banded fishing spider had been found in 2012 in Perry County. The latter, discovered by moth expert Diane Brooks, was the first state record.

There is no question that white-banded fishing spiders are expanding northward. Spiders are not nearly so well known as birds or mammals, and thus the literature is often sparse. Still, several documents that mention this species from over a century ago describe it as a species of southern swamps, sometimes around cypress trees.

By 1973, white-banded fishing spiders had made it to Kentucky. A paper on fishing spiders published that year documented the northern limits of white-banded fishing spider as two southern Kentucky counties.

Fast forward to today. There are now dozens of records from Ohio, mostly east of a line from Cincinnati to Cleveland. There are also many records from Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Pennsylvania. At least one has reached the state up north, courtesy a 2020 record from southern Michigan. Apparently, all of the first records from all of these states date to within the last decade.

Why the recent expansion? Mean winter temperatures probably play a big role in defining the northern limits of white-banded fishing spiders (and many other insects and spiders). They overwinter as adults and can live for two years. As winters have gotten warmer, the spiders can expand their limits, and their quick expansion is abetted by the highly mobile balloon dispersal of the juveniles. Other factors may also be in play. Whatever the case, a very cool spider is now an Ohio resident.

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 large female white-banded fishing spider blends well with tree bark/Jim McCormac