Sunday, June 30, 2024

Nature: A portal to Ohio's glacial past can be found at Cedar Bog


A fen meadow, full of rare plants, surrounded by white cedar, can be seen at Cedar Bog/Jim McCormac

The Columbus Dispatch
June 30, 2024

Jim McCormac

One of Ohio’s greatest biological hotspots lies less than an hour’s drive west of Columbus.

Cedar Bog is a fascinating place; a glacial relict populated with flora that one would normally have to venture far to the north of Ohio to see.

At the time of European settlement, the Mad River Valley west and south of Urbana harbored a massive 7,000-acre “swamp”. The word swamp is a catch-all term for a variety of wetlands, and the Mad River swamp deserves more discriminating nomenclature.

In 1974, geologist Jane Forsyth did just that, coining what by then had become known as Cedar Bog as a boreal fen.

Boreal refers to northerly regions and is an apropos descriptor for Cedar Bog. The Pleistocene epoch brought the last global ice age, commencing about 2.5 million years ago. As the sheets of ice slowly expanded south, they bulldozed the landscape, creating valleys and depressions suitable for northern plant species.

As the climate then was much colder, boreal plants, such as spruce, fir, tamarack and many others, flourished in what would much later become known as Ohio.

A warming climate eventually spurred the retreat of the glaciers and they had receded to the north of Ohio by about 12,000 years ago. Boreal flora was slowly replaced with more southerly plants, except around the margins of cold glacial lakes and specialized peatlands known as bogs and fens.

Cedar Bog was one of the largest and is exceptional in that it hosts plants of boreal regions and westerly wet prairies. It should be noted that Cedar “Bog” is really a fen. Fens are fed by groundwater while bogs receive water from rainfall.

Soon after settlers pushed into the Mad River Valley, they set about clearing timber and draining the great swamp. Ultimately, all but the 450-acres that comprise present-day Cedar Bog were destroyed, the once tremendous floristic diversity replaced by the ubiquitous fodder of America’s bread basket: corn, soybeans and wheat.

Well over 90% of Ohio’s peatlands that were documented post-settlement have been destroyed. Fortunately, conservationists were able to rally to protect what remained of Cedar Bog, and in 1942, the state provided funds for its purchase and the site was turned over to the Ohio Historical Society (now Ohio History Connection).

The National Park Service designated it a National Natural Landmark in 1967, and it was dedicated as a state nature preserve in 1979.

I’ve visited Cedar Bog scores of times, most recently on June 22. It was a special-event day, with Chelsea Gottfried, co-author of the book "Gardening for Moths," speaking about our nocturnal butterflies to about 55 people.

Shauna Weyrauch and I attended and arrived an hour early to explore the extensive boardwalk.

Immediately obvious upon entering Cedar Bog are the namesake white cedars. This is a northern tree, and Cedar Bog is the only wetland in Ohio dominated by white cedar. One must venture about 250 miles to the north before cedar “swamps” start to become common.

The bright orange flowers of Michigan lilies caught our eye. The spectacular plants are having a boom year and can’t be missed. Showy grass-pink orchids dotted the fen meadows, and there were large drifts of fen Indian plantain, a strange member of the sunflower family.

Brilliant magenta spikes of spotted phlox provided jots of color amongst the sedges, and we were pleased to see the wand lily in peak bloom. The latter sometimes goes by the name “death camas” due to its toxic alkaloids.

Cedar Bog hosts one of the highest densities of rare plants of any site in the state. Probably the most famous of these is the showy lady’s slipper, a huge orchid with massive pink and white flowers. There are only about five Ohio sites, and Cedar Bog is by far the largest. They’re through for the season, but plan on visiting late spring/early summer next year to see them at prime time.

Visitors are often surprised to see lizards racing along the boardwalk. They’re five-lined skinks and are common. So is America’s smallest dragonfly, the endangered elfin skimmer. It’s less than an inch in length and is a fen and bog specialist.

Elfin skimmers lurk in the sedges, along with a threatened damselfly, the seepage dancer. Sharp-eyed observers will find them right along the boardwalk.

Mark your calendar for July 6 when firefly expert Matthew Speights delivers a presentation followed by a nocturnal foray into the fen to see an amazing insectivorous lightshow.

Cedar Bog offers a portal into Ohio’s glacial past, without having to drive several hundred miles to the north.

A visit is always interesting and the dedicated volunteers and Maddie Brown, the site manager, are a wealth of information. For hours and other details, visit

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

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Confused Eusarca moths nectar at rare plant

Last Saturday evening, Cedar Bog hosted a moth night, headlined by speaker Chelsea Gottfried, coauthor of THIS BOOK. It was a great program, and Chelsea played to a packed house of about 55 people. Nightfall was settling in by the time her talk was done and illuminated mothing sheets had been strategically placed around the nature center.

I was equally interested in going into the heart of the large fen (Cedar "Bog" is actually a fen) and seeing what moths but by visiting the flowers in the fen meadows, many of which are rare in Ohio.

This is one of those rarities, the Wand Lily (Anticlea elegans), or as it is sometimes known, Death Camas. The latter stems from the toxicity of plants in this genus, and apparently the toxins are quite potent.

Shauna Weyrauch and I were more interested in moth flower visitors than plant toxicity on this night, but despite watching, saw no Lepidopteran visitors at the Wand Lily. I did later see an image from someone else of a moth nectaring at these flowers but could not tell what species from the image. I would have liked to have spent more time observing the Wand Lilies, but time was limited, and I thought that another species nearby would bear more mothy fruit.

This is Fen Indian-plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum), and while quite the rarity in Ohio, there is plenty at Cedar Bog and it can form sizable drifts. It is a beautiful plant, and recognizing the family it belongs to as probably not intuitive for many people. Fen Indian-plantain, believe it or not, is a member of the massive Sunflower Family (Asteraceae).

It was in perfect bloom, and I figured that the luminescent white flowers would lure moths, so we spent much of our time observing the indian-plantain.

Bingo! A Confused Eusarca (Eusarca confusaria) taps nectar from the strange blooms. We saw a number of Confused Eusarcas doing so, as well as other moth species that I didn't manage photos of and did not identify. By the way, I do not know the story behind the "confused" part of the moth's moniker. They didn't look particularly confused to me, and I suspect it may have something to do with other similar species and humans' confusion over separating them.

Confused Eusarca caterpillars feed primarily on members of the Sunflower Family, and it may be that Fen Indian-plantain plays host to them. There are many other potential host plant candidates in Cedar Bog's meadows as well, and I would love to put in some more hours in the "bog" at night looking for nectaring moths.

If you want to experience Cedar Bog after dark, firefly expert Matthew Speights will be giving a program in the Cedar Bog visitor's center on July 6 at 730 pm. Afterwards, everyone will head afield to look for and learn about "lightning bugs". I can report that it looked like a laser light show in places last Saturday night due to prolific fireflies.

PHOTO NOTE: I have been regularly engaging in nocturnal photography for some time now and have hit upon a pretty bulletproof flash technique. It involves these settings: ISO 200, 1/200 second exposure, and f/13 or f/16 (a small aperture). The flash is either the Canon 600 EX II RT speedlite, or more commonly the Canon MT 26EX-RT Twinlites. The latter mount on a ring around the end of the lens barrel, and both lights - one on either side of the lens - can be adjusted independently. When the shutter is half tapped, subtle pre-lights come on on both flashes, providing enough light to focus. When the subject is locked on, fully depress the shutter and make the image. No need for clumsy flashlights or other auxiliary light sources to find and focus on the subject. my 100mm f/2.8L macro lens is the usual weapon of choice. With the flash set to TTL mode, it communicates with the camera and typically provides just about the perfect amount of light every time. I'd far rather focus on finding, approaching, and composing subjects that constantly fiddling with camera/flash settings. And light metering that I do is usually by adjusting the intensity of the flash itself, either adding or reducing light if needed.

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Raccoon rears up like a little bear

I recently received a timely request from a magazine, BWD, that I regularly work with. It's the former Bird Watcher's Digest, now truncated to the acronym. If you're into birds, on any level, I highly recommend a subscription. GO HERE for more information.

Anyway, the list of photo requests for the upcoming issue included one very specific target: an American Crow with an unshelled peanut in its bill. I can do that, thought I, as I've been working near daily trying to form a bond with a couple of the local crows. They nested this year within sight of the window where I now sit, the aerie well hidden in the crown of a towering Norway Spruce. I make regular gifts of peanuts to them, and the birds - mostly one or occasionally both adults, and a juvenile - have learned to recognize me as the peanut vendor. They now will come quite close as they exhort me to greater speed as I distribute their peanuts.

So, I waited until the light was optimal, set up my blind in a good spot in the backyard, scattered some peanuts and soon had my shot. I used the blind because at first, I was thinking that as used to me as they've become, I can just sit in a yard chair with my camera rig on a tripod in front of me. I should have known better. Crows are smarter than many people I've met, probably including myself, and the appearance of me in an odd location with what looked like a giant cannon (Canon, actually) aimed in their direction did not sit well with the birds. They cawed and rattled and sought new vantage points but would not drop down for the peanuts. Once I hid myself and the rig in the blind, I soon had success.

Crow with unshelled peanut. As always, click the image to enlarge.

It was getting late in the day as I worked the peanut-eating corvids, and thus I wasn't too surprised when a sow Raccoon ambled along, her keen nose apparently having detected the nuts.

I know that "coons" generate a lot of dislike, but even though I've had my fair share of issues with the wily beasts, I greatly admire them. And when she presented herself such as above, and I'm looking down the barrel of a big telephoto lens, there's no way I'm not taking advantage.

But crows, not coons, were my primary targets and the masked bandido's presence kept the birds at bay. So, a few times I had to pop from the blind and spook her off.

After the third time of me springing from the blind and making odd noises to startle her back under cover, she was leery, but the allure of peanuts still brought her back. This time, to better get a sense of her surroundings and the possible location of the annoying person (me), she reared up like a little bear, giving me a wonderful series of interesting shots. So, success on two counts with two of the smartest critters around.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Cedar Bog Moth Night: Saturday, June 22


A LeConte's Haploa (Haploa lecontei) at rest on the needles of White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis). I came across this moth last June 8, while on a whirlwind trip around Cedar Bog, near Urbana, Ohio, on my way home from elsewhere. I was especially pleased at this scene, as the moth chose the bog's namesake plant for its resting spot.

On Saturday, June 8, Chelsea Gottfried will give a talk about moths at Cedar Bog's visitor center. It is loosely based on the book that she and I coauthored, entitled Gardening for Moths. In addition to pragmatic information for anyone interested in growing native plants/moths (the two are inseparable), the book is full of natural history information about moths and their critical role in the environment.

The talk begins at 8 pm, and afterwards we'll have mothing stations up and running and luring lots of interesting moths. Visitors can see these fabulous creatures up close and personal and there should be plenty of great photo ops. For details, GO HERE.

Cedar Bog is an absolute goldmine of floral and faunal diversity and hosts one of the largest concentrations of rare species in Ohio. A few photos of some of the floristic gems (my main targets on that day) follow; all were made on my short June 8 visit.

If you would be interested in a special pre-talk hike around the bog, starting at 6:30 pm, led by myself and Chelsea, let me know. We'll probably limit it to a dozen people as the boardwalk limits the number of people who can gather as a group to look at and learn about interesting finds. Just send me an email if you're interested (jimmccormac35 AT

As always, click the photo to enlarge

A beautiful Grass-pink (Calopogon tuberosus) poses nicely for the camera. I especially appreciated its presentation of odd numbers: three flowers, and five buds above. Some stragglers may still be holding on for our moth night adventure next weekend. This orchid is pretty common in the fen meadows at Cedar Bog and is one of a number of orchid species that occurs there.

PHOTO NOTE: I made all of the images in this post with my Canon R5 (I can hardly bring myself to shoot with anything else, after much experience working with this amazing camera) and the Canon 400 DO II telephoto lens. I knew that at least some of my target plants would not be particularly close to the boardwalk - people should never leave the boardwalk - so I wanted much more reach than either of my macro lenses offer. The 400 DO II is a sensational lens that produces tack-sharp imagery, is very lightweight, has brilliant image stabilization for handholding, sports a relatively close minimum focus range but also works well with a 25mm extension tube for even closer focusing, and creates a wondrous bokeh. It and other larger telephotos can be fine, and even extraordinary, lenses for plant photography and I frequently employ them for such purposes.

The primary target of this day, the Purple Fringed Orchid (Platanthera psycodes). This is a very rare Ohio plant and is also very rare within Cedar Bog. Only two plants were found this year. Purple Fringed Orchid is a very striking plant, but can be easy to miss in shady, well-vegetated haunts such as at this site. This plant, and the other, were rather short in stature as well, making it even easier to miss them.

PHOTO NOTE: To get this image, I laid on the boardwalk and shot through the one small opening in the vegetation that offered an unobstructed view of the inflorescence. I had to push up against the kick rail on the far side of the boardwalk to get far enough away to focus, as my minimum focus distance (with the extension tube) was about 8 feet. Settings were ISO 1000, f/7.1, and 1/160 second exposure. The higher ISO (I typically prefer ISO 100-200 for plants) was necessitated by the darkish shaded habitat. Also, as I was handholding a bit higher ISO atones for any movement on my part as it permits a faster shutter speed than lower ISO settings would. Because of background clutter, I opted for a fairly open aperture of f/7.1 to better melt away the backdrop. In general, I prefer more open apertures for plants, often between f/4 and f/7.1. As for presentation, I chose to crop down to just the flowering portion of the inflorescence. After all, the incredible flowers are the most charismatic part of this orchid. Besides, the bottom portion of the plant had various stems and leaves of other plants in the way. No flash, and I'm tempted to add, "of course". I'm not a fan of flash on most plants, as it imparts a harshness and flatness that isn't pleasing to my eye. There are certain situations in which flash might help improve a plant image, but those instances are not typical.

Finally, the state-endangered Horned Bladderwort (Utricularia cornuta). This is one of Ohio's rarest plants, being found only at Cedar Bog and one other fen in a neighboring county. There are old records from two northeastern counties, but the bladderwort is no longer known to occur at those sites. Bladderworts are carnivorous plants, indeed, the largest group of botanical carnivores with some 250 species worldwide. Their root systems are beset with tiny sacs (the bladders) that have trap doors. When some tiny animal such as a water flea or insect larva swims near and triggers guard hairs on the bladder, the door pops open inwardly with great rapidity, sucking the victim inside. The door then rapidly shuts and over time the bladderwort ingests the soft parts of the prey, abetted by various enzymes that speed decomposition.

I was glad that I had the bigger lens for this one, as this bladderwort - the most unobstructed specimen that I could find - was probably 12-15 feet out in the meadow. The light was not exactly awesome, as it was afternoon with mostly bright sun. I hope to work more with this species in the future, and I think that I have more pleasingly illuminated shots than this from past work.

If you can make it out for our event next Saturday, we will see these species, sans the Purple Fringed Orchids which will probably be well past flowering - and MUCH more.

Friday, June 7, 2024

Shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica)


Like an elfin garden, a colony of Shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica) springs from well-drained soils of an upland forest in Mohican State Forest in Ashland County, Ohio. Shauna and I did a bit of hiking here this morning and were pleased to stumble across this magical little wildflower.

A trio of flowering spikes erupt from their leafy bases. Shinleaf can be surprisingly easy to miss, given its gloomily lit haunts. Also, it blooms well after the crush of spring wildflowers, when everyone is in the woods ogling showy bluebells, trout lilies, wood poppies, etc. Furthermore, from my experience, this Lilliputian member of the heath family (formerly and sometimes still the Pyrolaceae family) is normally rather scarce, with widely scattered and small colonies.

An isolated plant showcases the graceful form of Pyrola elliptica. The specific epithet elliptica stems from the slightly elongated shape of the basal leaves. I love the genus name Pyrola, which rolls pleasingly off the tongue. It references the genus Pyrus, the pear trees, due to a supposed resemblance of the foliage.
The little candelabras of waxy white flowers are quite elegant. The other three species of Pyrola found in Ohio have similar inflorescences replete with waxy flowers, but only one other, the Round-leaved Wintergreen (P. rotundifolia) can be locally common, although it is largely confined to the eastern half of the state.

The other two, One-sided Wintergreen (Pyrola [Orthilia] secunda) and Green-flowered Shinleaf (P. chlorantha) are now considered extirpated, as it's been over two decades since anyone has found them. The former occurred in only seven counties in the extreme northeastern corner of the state, and the latter was only found once, in Lucas County. Their disappearance correlates with a seeming northward retreat of northern flora at their southern limits. Rediscover either of those, and you'll become famous in Ohio botanical circles.

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Osprey seizes fish, Black Terns watch


As always, click the photo to enlarge

An Osprey labors skyward, having just caught a Common Carp. The fish looks shocked as it should be. "Fish Hawk" attacks come without warning. One minute you're plying your trade in the isolation chamber calmness of the underwater world, then suddenly, Crash and Splash! Out of nowhere a giant raptor's talon break the surface, seize you, and next thing you know, you're high aloft and heading for a nest of baby Ospreys. Fate: avian sushi.

Shauna and I attended the amazing Allegany Nature Pilgrimage in southwestern New York, as I gave the keynote last Friday night. Moths, of course, loosely based on Chelsea Gottfried's and my new book, Gardening for Moths, which is equal parts, at least, moth natural history. This was the 66th year for the pilgrimage and it is still going strong with about 700 attendees this year.

After that, we spent a few days based in Rochester, New York, exploring Montezuma and Iroquois National Wildlife Refuges - this Osprey image was created at Montezuma - and a few other nearby sites.

A Black Tern wheels over a marsh at Montezuma NWR. As many as 12 were present simultaneously, and this marsh also hosted up to five Osprey at once. Needless to say, birds in flight opportunities were frequent. I was especially pleased to see the terns. The Black Tern has become much scarcer in many areas, including my home state of Ohio. The reasons are several, probably, not the least of which are loss of marshes. But there's undoubtedly more to the picture. Black Terns take lots of insects, in addition to small fish. Insects are spawned by native plants, generally, and native plant diversity has certainly crashed in heavily managed, diked, marshes controlled by wildlife agencies. Invasive plants thrive in such environments and both Montezuma and Iroquois had lots of Giant Reed (Phragmites australis), Reed Canary Grass (Phalaris arundinacea), Flowering Rush (Butomus umbellatus) and others. Carp also thrives in such environments, and they are hard on wetland ecology. We can at least thank the Osprey for removing some of them.

It was interesting to watch the terns hunting damselflies from floating algal mats and other aquatic vegetation. Damselflies are tiny dragonflies and to spot them, dive, and deftly pluck them from the plants is a feat indeed.

Hopefully I'll get around to posting some more of the interesting observations that we made on this trip.