Sunday, June 18, 2017

Nature: Bunnies prolific breeders but have many predators

A young eastern cottontail grooms itself along a Hocking County lane. Many cottontails fall victim to predators before they reach adulthood. Jim McCormac/For The Dispatch

June 18, 2017

Jim McCormac

Hallo, Rabbit,” he said, “is that you?”
“Let’s pretend it isn’t,” said Rabbit, “and see what happens.”
― A. A. Milne (from “Winnie-the-Pooh”)
I’ve been writing natural-history columns for The Dispatch for 12 years and have penned more than 250 articles.
In all that time, I haven’t written a word about one of our most familiar mammals, the eastern cottontail. My apologies to the rabbits.
There’s certainly enough of the fuzz-tailed hoppers to warrant some comment. Cottontails are prolific breeders, with females able to produce five or more litters of up to eight kits in a single season.
Some of those kits will produce litters in their first year.
It doesn’t take a mathematician to realize that we could quickly be swarming with rabbits.
But we’re not awash in rabbits, thanks to numerous predators that view them as hopping steaks. Larger hawks, owls, coyotes and foxes make meals of them. Snakes, skunks, weasels and others nosh on nestling rabbits.
A notable rabbit-hunter is the bobcat. I’ve only seen two of these wildcats in Ohio, and both were patrolling rural lanes in June. I suspect they were seeking young rabbits, which are prone to conspicuously foraging in mowed berms in early summer.
The predators must work for their meal, though. A startled cottontail bolts off in a series of rapid zigs and zags, and can briefly touch 18 mph.
If a cottontail makes it out of adolescence, it will be lucky to last three years.
Few people have actually seen cottontail courtship, which is sometimes called “cavorting.” A pair of amorous rabbits face off, a few feet apart. The male will suddenly spring several feet into the air, twisting 180 degrees in the process. The female races beneath the airborne acrobat, and he lands facing her. Cavorting may entail all manner of other rabbit hijinks: chasing, hopping and tussling.
There once was another rabbit species in Ohio. The larger snowshoe hare occurred in extreme northeastern Ohio, in the snowbelt region. This northern rabbit was at its southern limits in Ohio, and changing habitats pushed it out of the state by the early 1900s. A reintroduction scheme initiated by the Ohio Division of Wildlife in the early 2000s failed.
Ohio hunters must settle for the eastern cottontail, and many do. Rabbit hunting is popular, and the bag limit is four rabbits a day. In recent years, the annual harvest is probably about 500,000 animals. Harvests of four decades ago averaged about 2 million rabbits.
A decrease in hunters and an overall decrease in the cottontail population — driven by habitat loss and an increase in certain predators such as coyotes — have combined to cut those annual takes.
Cottontails remain common, though, as many a gardener who has waged war with the furry vegetable-eaters can attest.
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

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Orchid poster available!

Botanist and orchidophile Andrew Gibson has assembled a stunning collage of all of Ohio's native orchids in poster form, aptly titled Native Orchids of Ohio. Click the photo above to see a larger version. It took him years to track down and photograph all 47 native species - and there is also one interesting hybrid included. The photos speak for themselves - they're stunning. The poster, which measures 24" x 36", could be framed and used as wall art. As many people may not even know that orchids occur in Ohio, the poster is sure to be a conversation piece with house guests. It would also be an informative addition to the walls of schools and other institutions of learning.

CLICK HERE for information about ordering the Native Orchids of Ohio poster.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A few odds and ends from recent days

I've been away more than home of late, and often busy with necessary work when I am home, so here's a quick and easy post. A hodgepodge of various flora and fauna from recent travels around Ohio, in no particular order.

One of our most striking warblers, a male Common Yellowthroat tees up on a favorite singing perch. Cedar Bog, Champaign County.

A flowerfly in the family Syrphidae grasps the style of a meadow parsnip flower, Pastinaca sativa, and laps pollen from the stigma. Many species in this family, like this one, are excellent bee mimics. Castalia Prairie, Erie County.

Rearing up and displaying its osmeteria is a Black Swallowtail caterpillar. The orange horns emit a foul-smelling chemical and are used to ward off would-be predators. The cat was eating the foliage of poison-hemlock, Conium maculatum, a very toxic plant. Woodman Fen, Montgomery County.

Tiny but beautiful is this Orange Wing Moth, Mellilla xanthometata. It was one of many moths that were lured by light sheets set up by entomologist Jim Lemon at Cedar Bog in Champaign County.

A large wolf spider (species unknown, to me) carries several dozen of her spiderlings on her back. Many small predators would think thrice about messing with this eight-legged mom. Cedar Bog, Champaign County.

One of our showier orchids, the Grass-pink, Calopogon tuberosus. This plant can easily be seen from the boardwalk at Cedar Bog, Champaign County.

Fading fast but still looking good last Saturday was Cedar Bog's most famous botanical resident, the Showy Lady's-slipper, Cypripedium reginae. Champaign County.

As a photographic footnote, I made both of the preceding orchid images with a big telephoto lens, Canon's remarkable 500mm f/4 II. While normally a bird lens, it works very well on larger plants, and provides beautiful background compression. As its working range is considerable, using it allows one to remain on the boardwalk in this case, and not trample into Cedar Bog's rarity-filled sedge meadows.

An especially cooperative Common Baskettail, Epitheca cynosura, poses nicely at Castalia Prairie, Erie County.

The largest genus of plants in Ohio is Carex, a diverse group of over 160 species of sedges, This is one of the more distinctive species, Short's Sedge, Carex shortiana. Germantown Metropark, Montgomery County.

Finally, one of our stranger flies, perched on the pedicel of Dudley's rush, Juncus dudleyi, in a wet prairie. It is a marsh fly (probably a species in the genus Antichaeta). These flies parasitize various freshwater snails. Castalia Prairie, Erie County.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Young rabbits galore

Tis the season for young Eastern Cottontails. June brings young bunnies, and these youngsters, who haven't yet developed street smarts, often forage out in the open. Thus, they are easy pickings for all manner of predators, not the least of which is the Bobcat. Both of my Ohio Bobcat sightings come from June, and both cats were patrolling country lanes. I suspect they were searching for young rabbits, like the one in these photos.

I made these two images this morning in Hocking County, while photographing birds. The little rabbit - and there was another close by - was oblivious to my presence. In the photo above, he nonchalantly feeds on the leaves of American plantain, Plantago rugelii, right out in the open along a rural lane. Any Red-tailed Hawk - and there are many around there - that happens along will take a keen interest in this rabbit.

Eastern Cottontails are incredibly prolific breeders. A sexually mature female can have five or so litters a year, each of up to eight kits. Some of those kits will be able to breed within their first year. It doesn't take a mathematician to see that we would soon be awash in rabbits if various predators did not take advantage of all the hopping little steaks.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Showy Lady's-slippers at Cedar Bog

A trio of dazzling Showy Lady's-slipper flowers, as seen from the boardwalk at Cedar Bog in Champaign County, Ohio, this morning.

Fortunately, I made it back from the northern reaches of Michigan in time to get over to Cedar Bog and see Cypripedium reginae, arguably the most spectacular of North American orchids. It is at peak bloom right now, and will look good for another week or so.

Not much notice, I know, but the Friends of Cedar Bog will conduct guided tours to see and learn about these orchids tomorrow and Sunday (June 3 & 4). More information can be found RIGHT HERE.

I highly recommend a visit. Traversing the "bog" (really a fen) is easy, thanks to a mile long boardwalk. While the orchids are currently the star of the show, biodiversity abounds in this magical place, and you'll see much more.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A fortuitous badger encounter!

This year marked the 8th year that I've led natural history forays in one of the great hidden gems of eastern North America, Presque Isle County, Michigan. I work in partnership with NettieBay Lodge, and there couldn't be a finer base camp. The lodge and its cabins sit on the shore of a beautiful natural lake. The wild yodels of Common Loons are commonplace, Eastern Whip-poor-wills sing from the forest, an American Woodcock displays nightly in the front yard, and scores of other birds are on the property.

But we range throughout the county and beyond on our day trips. Above, this year's group patrols a remote road in the Pigeon River State Forest. There were Mourning Warblers, Northern Waterthrushes, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Ruffed Grouse, and more at this locale. In sum, the group's total bird list for our 3+ days was 142 species, and if my other observations from pre and post excursions is included, the number soars to over 150 species.

If you're interested in coming along next year, drop me a line. We're doing two groups, each of two full days, with a half-day on either end. I think the first one is full, but there are a few spots for the second group. We'll sort the exact dates out soon, but it'll be sometime in the 3rd and 4th week of May.

We usually stop at this big meadow, which always hosts a complement of grassland birds, and this year was no exception.

Savannah Sparrows can always be found singing from the fence posts along the gravel lane in the previous photo, and this is one of those birds.

The highlight of Big Meadow, though, is the Bobolinks. The males put on quite a show, chasing females about and singing their twangy R2-D2 songs. Although Bobolinks occur in many of the pastures up there, this is a particular good spot to view them.

Whoa! An American Badger! While we watched the Bobolinks' antics over the meadow, sharp-eyed Carl Winstead suddenly exclaimed something to the effect of "Is that a badger?!" Yes, indeed it was, and here's the beast. It was snuffling about near the entrance to its burrow along the fenceline buffering the meadow, and close enough to offer stellar looks. We even had him in the scopes for extended views.

Badgers apparently don't see so well, and rely heavily upon scent to interpret their surroundings. We were upwind, which helped a lot, and I don't think the beast even knew we were there, or if it did, it didn't care. Finally, I crept stealthily in its direction, and it eventually detected me and paused to stare my way. After a bit, it slunk back into its burrow, after offering up the best looks one could ever ask for of one of these hard to observe animals.

Two years ago, Sandy Brown spotted a badger from the van on one of our trips. That was the first one I'd ever seen, and I told the story RIGHT HERE. Badgers are quite common in Presque Isle County and vicinity, as evidenced by their numerous burrows. But seeing one requires a fair bit of luck. I'm not sure that they are particularly concerned about people, but the animals spend much of their day holed up in dens, and apparently forage mostly by night.

Photo courtesy of Bob Crist.

Your narrator was quite pleased with the badger sighting, as was the rest of the group. Carl was man of the hour for making the initial spot. To me, this even trumped the singing Connecticut Warbler that we found first thing that morning.

In the case of the badger of two years ago, I got no photos. That's because I didn't bring a camera. It was raining hard when we set out that morning, and the forecast called for lots of precipitation. I didn't want to take the rig out in the rain, and left it behind. Dumb, and a stupid mistake I'll not make again. I could have just left the camera in the van in case of emergency.

For photographers, the rig I'm holding is one of the greatest setups for handheld field work, in my opinion. It is the Canon 5DS-R (more often I'll use the 5D IV) attached to Canon's fantastic 100-400mm II lens. In this case, I had the 1.4x extender attached, and was glad that I did. That makes the lens at full zoom a 560mm, which was plenty of reach to pull in the badger, and it's easy to handhold. Pop the extender off, and the 100mm low end offers the ability to do tight landscapes, people or groups, etc., and the lens focuses to 3.5 feet. Lots of versatility here. If I could only carry one rig, this would be it.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Some images from Michigan

Sorry, I've been remiss in posting of late. Too busy, but having great fun. I've been up in northern Michigan, where I guided a fabulous group of ten people for the better part of five days. We were based at NettieBay Lodge in Presque Isle County, and mostly stayed in that county, with peripheral forays into neighboring Cheboygan and Montmorency counties. We found all manner of cool stuff, including over 140 species of birds.

Before and after the group expedition, I went exploring, and photographing. The last few days I've been on Drummond Island, off the eastern tip of the Upper Peninsula. I'd not visited here before, and am glad I came. Drummond is an absolute goldmine of flora and fauna, always backdropped by stunning scenery.

Following, in no particular order, are a few images from recent days.

Male Golden-winged Warbler, foraging in alder swamp. Pigeon River State Forest.

A pair of male Northern Flickers "dance" while issuing synchronous wicka wicka calls. they are vying for a female. Drummond Island.

A Sandhill Crane struts across the Maxton Plains on Drummond Island. This site is one of the largest and best alvars on the Great Lakes.

A Sharp-tailed Grouse surveys his domain from atop a white spruce. A lek was nearby, and this bird and three other males had just finished their courtship displays, and had dispersed to forage. Drummond Island.

A very young Killdeer chick, still with fuzz. Drummond Island.

Yes, an American Badger! There's a story behind this photo, and it'll warrant its own blog post at a later date. Presque Isle County.

A Mourning Warbler, at one of its singing perches. Pigeon River State Forest.

The oddly beautiful flower of a Naked Miterwort, Mitella nuda. Drummond Island.

A lone Yellow Lady's-slipper, Cypripedium parviflorum, stands sentinel over the Maxton Plains on Drummond Island. In a week or so, these orchids will be conspicuous all over the island. They are just starting to bloom.