Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The amazing Green Heron

An adult Green Heron stands on a boardwalk railing at a marsh in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, yesterday. He flew in and landed about 20 feet away from where I was standing.

Maybe it's just good luck, but I seem to have seen many more Green Herons this summer than usual. Just about everywhere I go, there they are. I'm not complaining, these pint-sized waders punch way over their weight in terms of beauty and interest.

This is the same bird as in the previous photo, but in much better light and far more natural habitat. In the preceding shot, the light was terrible - here, the sunlight is coming over my shoulder during the golden glow of early morning. Thanks to the heron for being so cooperative.

Ever since I was a little kid, I've been captivated by Green Herons, even when they were known by the overly hyphenated name of Green-backed Heron. Not only are they showy, but their behavior is interesting. Like many herons, this species is slow and methodical, patiently stalking small aquatic prey with movements so slow and measured that the animal virtually oozes closer to its victim millimeter by millimeter.

A juvenile Green Heron admires the view from high on a cattail stalk.

Not only are these herons adept hunters, they take hunting to a new level among their ilk. This is one of relatively few birds that is known to employ "lures" for fishing. Sometimes a Green Heron will seize a feather or some other object, and toss it in the water within striking range. If a small fish swims up to investigate, the heron strikes.

An adult Green Heron wings by my hiding spot in a marsh at Battelle Darby Metropark last Sunday. The molt pattern can be well seen on its wing feathering, with older brownish feathers being replaced by newer greener feathers.

In flight, Green Herons suggest the appearance of a crow, but have a distinctive deep and regular wingbeat that allows them to be identified nearly as far as they can be seen. When flushed, a bird often lets loose with a loud, piercing SKEOW! call that can't be missed. It often expels a prodigious white stream of guano, too - the latter habit leading to one of its many nicknames, "chalk-line".

I shot this Green Heron yesterday as it hunted from a log in a swamp. The birds at this site in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park are quite habituated to people and easy to approach. This bird was fixated on a frog, tadpole, or some other small creature and was ever so SLOWLY moving its bill towards the quarry.

PHOTO TIP: For a minute or so, the heron in the shot above froze motionless in this position. I was shooting with a tripod-mounted telephoto lens from only about 25 feet away. When I saw that the bird was remaining stock still, I switched to live view (scene displayed on the viewfinder on the back of the camera). This mode locks the internal mirror up, so when a shot is taken there will be no "mirror slap". Slight as that mirror movement may be, it can cause a bit of shake that might manifest itself at slow shutter speeds. I then flipped the camera's drive mode to 2-second timer delay, in order to eliminate any movement caused by me handling the camera to trip the shutter. Even though the heron's haunts were very dim and shady, this allowed me to stop down to f/8 for better depth of field, and use a relatively slow 1/100 shutter speed while still keeping the ISO to 640. In hindsight, I probably should have slowed the shutter speed even more to bring the ISO down further, but the Canon 5D IV handles higher ISO settings well, and I usually don't worry much until the ISO creeps north of 800. Also, the 5D IV has a touch-activated rear viewing screen, which is worth its weight in gold when making shots like this. All I need do is frame the subject, then touch the part of the screen where I want the camera to focus, then hit the focus button ( back * button on my setup; half-tap of the shutter button for most). This sort of touch-sensitive back screen will become commonplace on digital cameras before long.

A Green Heron strikes! I made this shot back in July at Lake Logan in Hocking County. It's amazing how far these birds can extend themselves when they lunge. It doesn't seem possible that this bird could pull itself back up after this, but it did, effortlessly.

I feel fortunate to have spent much quality time this year with Green Herons.

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Sunday, August 20, 2017

Nature: Female hummingbird an impressive homemaker

A female ruby-throated hummingbird feeding its chick in Montgomery County.

August 20, 2017

NATURE
Jim McCormac

“Achieving gender equality requires the engagement of women and men, girls and boys. It is everyone’s responsibility.” — Ban Ki-moon

The former secretary-general of the United Nations might not think much of male hummingbirds: The boys are a disengaged group.

Of the 16 species of hummingbirds that breed in the U.S., only the ruby-throated hummingbird nests east of the Mississippi River. The speedy sprites are well-known, even to people only casually interested in birds.

The hummingbird relationship serves as a prime example of one in which the female does all the heavy lifting.

The penny-weight males return from the tropics in April, many of them having negotiated a 500-mile flight over the Gulf of Mexico. Upon their return to northern nesting grounds, the males stake a claim on suitable nesting spots.

Females return about a week later. When one enters a male’s turf, he struts his stuff. To woo his prospective mate, the male ascends as high as 50 feet, then swoops earthward like a missile, pulling up sharply at the dive’s conclusion and roaring back aloft. The U-shaped flight display is accompanied by an astonishingly loud wing buzz.

What female could resist?

If successful in wowing his girl, the male then consummates the relationship. Then he’s gone, off to cavort with flowers, roam meadows and, eventually, return to tropical haunts long before the hardworking females.

The female wastes no time starting the nest.

A ruby-throated hummingbird nest is an exquisite structure. Every time I see one, I’m amazed that the tiny, long-billed birds can construct such a home.

She begins by harvesting thistledown and other soft plant material, which is saddled to a horizontal branch using spider silk. Harvesting the silk is why hummers are sometimes seen poking around in garages and under eaves.

Eventually, she builds the nest walls into a soft cup, tied together with silk and shaped by using her body as a mold. Finally, the nest’s exterior is shingled with lichen bits for camouflage. The result is an architecturally ornate cup about 1 1/2 inches tall and 2 inches across.

Two pinky-fingernail-sized eggs are laid, and she incubates them for about two weeks. The elfin hatchlings are naked and helpless. They are born into a luxurious down-filled home, but they grow like weeds, and their bulk soon taxes the confines of the tiny shelter.

The properties of spider silk come into play by allowing the sides of the nest to bow outward yet remain strong, allowing the ever-expanding house of the hatchlings to grow to meet their needs.

All the while, the female busily gathers nectar and small insects to feed the chicks. About three weeks later, the baby hummingbirds are ready for their inaugural flight and head out into a landscape filled with summer wildflowers.

The accompanying photo depicts a nest shown to me by photographer Dean Porter, who had been tracking it and making excellent images of its progression. I’m grateful to him for sharing its location.

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 www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.


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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Cardinal-flower, rare in white, and pollinating swallowtails

The brilliant red flowers of Cardinal-flower, Lobelia cardinalis, form a conspicuous spike that just can't be missed. This is one of the flashiest plants of late summer and fall. I've seen plants that regularly attain heights of four feet, and the occasional giant that towers to over six feet. Its favored haunts are the rich alluvial soils of floodplain terraces, sometimes in fairly heavy shade but usually doing best where much sunlight reaches the plants for a good chunk of the day.

Even more interesting than the typical rich red form of Cardinal-flower is the far scarcer white-flowered type, which has been described as forma alba. I've only seen this variant in nature a handful of times, so when Dave Riepenhoff tipped me to a colony in Scioto County, Ohio, I was pleased indeed, especially as I had a trip planned to that area a few days later.

It wasn't hard to spot the plants. I rounded a slight bend in the road, which followed a small creek, and saw dozens of typical red-flowered plants. Not far behind were a dozen or so magnificent white-form plants, and they fairly glowed in their shady haunts. Above, one of the white plants grows side by side with a typically colored form for ease of comparison.

Here's the colony, with the tallest white-flowered plant reaching nearly four feet in height. Quite a striking sight. Stretching for perhaps a few hundred feet down the creek were dozens of other plants, all of those the typical red-flowered form.

It is often said that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are the primary pollinators of Cardinal-flower, and some sources even claim it is the only pollinator. The elfin birds do indeed thirst for this species' nectar, and I've seen them visit the flowers many times. Indeed, that's why I arrived at this spot very early in the morning, and set up photographic shop - my aim was to create high-quality images of hummingbirds visiting the flowers, especially those of the rare white form.

Well, there were indeed some hummingbirds about, but they only occasionally visited the Cardinal-flowers and never did come into the white-flowered plants which I set up on. They seemed far more smitten with the numerous Spotted Jewelweed, Impatiens capensis, another wildflower which is coveted by the little birds. In fact, there was a huge patch of the stuff right behind my position, and a male Ruby-throat was guarding it fiercely. He'd drop down and feed at the flowers for a few minutes, then zoom back up to a conspicuous perch overlooking his kingdom, only 15 feet behind my head. Any other hummers that came near were promptly driven away.

As the air warmed, the swallowtails became active and eventually stole the show. At times, fifty or more were mobbing the Cardinal-flowers and three or four often sparred over the same plant, as in the photo above. These big butterflies quickly became my focus.

Virtually all of the butterflies were Spicebush Swallowtails, Papilio troilus, as above. I did see one or a few dark morph Eastern Tiger Swallowtails and Pipevine Swallowtails visit the flowers, but the overwhelming majority were the spicebushes. Interesting, even though plenty were about, I never saw a yellow form female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail or any of the always yellow males make an effort to visit the Cardinal-flowers. They stayed strictly with plants in the aster family, most notably Hollow-stemmed Joe-pye, Eutrochium fistulosum.

PHOTOGRAPHIC NOTE: Nearly all of these photos were made with the Canon 5D IV and Canon's superb 500mm f/4 II telephoto lens, mounted on a tripod. Big butterflies such as these really transcend macrophotography, and are easier to shoot from afar with a telephoto. This allows the photographer to remain far enough back to be completely unimportant to the insects, which will operate free of disturbance and as they naturally would. Most any lens of 300mm and up should work very well for swallowtail photography.

A Spicebush Swallowtail plunges face deep into the sweet spot of a Cardinal-flower. As I was observing and photographing the butterflies, I was thinking about the claims for hummingbird pollination exclusivity. It doesn't make sense that a plant such as this would evolve flowers that are so attractive to butterflies that they would be continually swarmed by the insects, and not derive much if any benefit in return.

Indeed, the flowers appear tailor-made for swallowtail access. The three lower petals hang down, offering a convenient perch for butterflies wishing to plumb the nectaries at the base of the long corolla tube. This arrangement puts the head of the insect in close proximity to the flower's reproductive parts, which are the grayish-white extensions at the top of each flower. When a flower is young, the reproductive extension is a brush or beard-like spur that contains the anthers, which hold the pollen. As the flower matures, the female stigma becomes exserted from the corolla tube - a stigma can be seen protruding from the flower directly opposite the butterfly.

So, the end game for the plant is to have an animal vector move pollen from anthers to stigma. As colonies of Cardinal-flowers, and even individual plants, will have a combination of flowers with exposed stamens/anthers and stigmas at any given time, flower-hugging butterflies would certainly seem capable of accomplishing this task.

In this shot, we can see a swallowtail's head jammed right into a brush of anthers, and it certainly must be receiving a dusting of pollen for its transgressions. All the butterfly need do is eventually work its way to an older flower with an exposed stigma while some of those pollen grains remain stuck to its head, and Voila! Pollination.

So, while hummingbirds are no doubt important pollinators of Cardinal-flower, I think a strong case can be made that swallowtail butterflies are also important to the gorgeous plant's reproduction. Maybe even more so than the bird.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

A swallowtail butterfly magnet

A massive clump of Hollow-stemmed Joe-pye, Eutrochium fistulosum (nee Eupatorium), bursts forth from the moist soil along a small creek in Shawnee State Forest. Some Cardinal-flowers, Lobelia cardinalis, glow like beacons in the shadows. The joe-pyes often attract commentary from botanists and non-botanists alike, due to their stature. The species above can tower 10 feet or more in height.

There are three species of joe-pye in Ohio: the one above, the similar Purple Joe-pye, E. purpureum, and the much shorter flat-topped Spotted Joe-pye, E. maculatum. The latter is largely restricted to high quality wetlands and is the least likely to be encountered. The other two are the conspicuous giants of moist woodland borders, bottomlands, low-lying ditches and thickets, etc. Purple Joe-pye has the broadest distribution, having been recorded in the majority of Ohio's 88 counties. Hollow-stemmed Joe-pye is largely restricted to the eastern half of the state. All of them are botanical goldmines to butterflies, especially swallowtails.

As to the curious name "Joe-pye", the following is cited directly from Mother Earth Living's website: "The origin of the common name is uncertain. The most prevalent theory holds that it refers to a Colonial-era Native American named Joe Pye, who is said to have used one of the species to cure typhus. Another is that Joe Pye was a nineteenth-century white “Indian theme promoter” who used the root of one of the species to induce sweating in cases of typhus. The earliest use of this name dates to 1810–1820."

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Papilio glaucus, are especially fond of joe-pye. If you want to see lots of swallowtails, just park yourself by a luxuriant patch of joe-pye and watch the parade. I spent the day on August 7 in Shawnee, where joe-pye abounds, and did just that. I had a good time shooting butterflies as they came and went, especially the flashy tigers. The one above is a female, sporting her tell-tale blue crescent.

Photo Tip: To get a black background, as above and in the last photo, use flash. Make sure that any background objects are far behind, and use a small aperture. The background should dissolve into an inky darkness, which often serves to focus complete attention on your subject. This photo was made with the Canon 5D IV and 100mm f/2.8L macro lens, at f/11, ISO 200, 1/200 with flash from a diffused Canon 600 II speedlite.

Although the animal above looks quite different than the preceding female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, it is the same. In areas where Pipevine Swallowtails occur, many if not nearly all female tigers will be of this dark morph. The theory is that the tigers are exploiting the appearance of the Pipevine Swallowtails. The latter species is distasteful due to its sequestration of toxic aristolochic acids derived from its pipevine plant hosts that are eaten by the caterpillars. Visual trickery such as this - an apparently non-toxic animal attempting to mimic the look of a toxic species - is known as Batesian Mimicry. Presumably birds quickly learn to shun distasteful Pipevine Swallowtails, and may avoid anything that looks similar. In Shawnee State Forest, there are plenty of both yellow and dark forms of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails.

By point of photographic comparison with the other butterfly shots, this one was made without flash. Thus, the background is far more obvious, at least in its natural colors. I also used a 500mm telephoto on a tripod, which allowed me to remain some distance away. The aperture was set to f/4.5, which largely blurred the background out.

A trio of stunning male Eastern Tiger Swallowtails jockey for position on a favored joe-pye. Competition for the flowers can be extreme at times, with butterflies bumping and shoving for space. Large bumblebees in the genus Bombus enter the fray, too, and I've often seen them run off the big swallowtails. In fact, the day I made these photos, I watched a bumblebee essentially attack a tiger swallowtail and the two eventually spiraled to the ground, the bumblebee apparently trying to sting the butterfly. The pair flopped about on the ground for a bit, before the butterfly shook itself free and fluttered off, apparently unharmed.

The photo above was made with the aforementioned Canon 5D IV, but this time coupled to Canon's amazing 200mm f/2 lens. Flash came from the 600 speedlite, but this time I went into high-speed sync mode with the camera's shutter speed set to 1/250. This mutes the light intensity, providing softer fill light. ISO was at 250, and aperture was f/10. Mostly, it was just a matter of waiting for the butterflies to arrange themselves in a pleasing matter, but when there's lots of joe-pye around one often doesn't have to wait long for excellent photo ops.

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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

"The Prairie Peninsula" showcases Midwest prairies


August 6, 2017

NATURE
Jim McCormac

In last week’s column on a rare Ohio orchid, I lamented the nearly complete destruction of the state’s prairie. The day after that column published, I received a brand new book: “The Prairie Peninsula” by Gary Meszaros and Guy L. Denny.

The title comes from a description that Ohio State University ecologist Edgar Transeau coined for a landmark paper in 1935. His premise was that the expansive prairies of the Great Plains progressively diminished eastward, terminating in a pointed “peninsula” that covered parts of Indiana and Ohio.

Although natural succession had allowed forests to reclaim prairie, scattered remnants persisted well to the east of the major prairie states of Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and surrounding states, Transeau said.

In their new book, Meszaros and Denny showcase the treasured prairie remnants that survive in Ohio and other Midwestern states, which have lost around 99 percent of their pre-settlement prairies — and an accompanying trove of biodiversity — to croplands.

The authors’ prairie pedigrees are beyond reproach. Meszaros, a Cleveland resident, has studied natural history in North America for decades, and he has become legendary for his gorgeous nature photographs. More than 140 of them, in full color, appear in the book.

Denny is one of the best-known naturalists in the Midwest. He served as chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ division that manages the state’s nature preserves and personally manages what must be the finest prairie creation in Ohio on his Knox County property.

Their book is divided into easy-to-understand sections covering prairies’ history, ecology, plants, birds, insects and other flora and fauna. Peppered throughout are Meszaros’ gorgeous images. Especially fetching photos might cover parts of two pages; others are thumbnails of a dizzying array of animals and plants.

Because the book is so richly illustrated, interesting and easily digested, it should be of great interest to kids, not just adults.

Intrepid explorers will appreciate the book’s last chapter, titled “Remnants.” It offers brief descriptions of many of the best prairie patches in five states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin. The vast prairies of Walpole Island in Ontario, Canada, are also covered.

For adventurers wishing to stay closer to home, the book describes five of Ohio’s best remaining prairies. All are must-sees, and the descriptions of each give a thumbnail of the highlights.
“The Prairie Peninsula” is a visual feast. It also serves as an important history book about our prairie heritage. I highly recommend it.

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 www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

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Sunday, August 6, 2017

Triangle-bearing Orbweaver

I spent much of yesterday at a place that I've often written about - Cedar Bog, the legendary natural area in Champaign County, Ohio. While I often visit for photographic purposes, yesterday was "work". At the request of Erika Galentin of the Herbal Academy, I was there to help with production of a video about pollinators, along with videographer Ryan Gebura. We spent five hours covering a mile of boardwalk, finding many interesting things along the way and frequently pausing to film narrated vignettes of some aspect of flora and fauna. I do not envy Ryan has task of having to distill all of that material into an hour video!

One of the cool things we stumbled into was a Triangle-bearing Orbweaver, Verrucosa arenata. These charismatic little spiders are quite showy in certain lights and angles; in others, they are a mimic of something quite unpalatable, as we shall see.

I saw this splotch on a ninebark leaf some ways down the trail, and from afar it looked astonishingly like a bird dropping. Being somewhat wise to the vast pool of organisms that excel in looking like avian expulsions, I investigated more closely.

And sure enough, no Blue Jay offal here - it was a huddled Triangle-bearing Orbweaver, hiding in plain sight. The animal's upper abdominal surface is shiny white, as if it was glazed with ceramic. The mixture of pale and dark pigments, coupled with the spider's habit of scrunching into a compact ball, creates an astonishingly good likeness of bird scat, at least at first glance. Why look like a bird dropping? Because, apparently few predators have any interest in such fare, so wearing a fecal disguise allows one to escape the notice of those that might otherwise do harm.

I wanted to gaze into the little spider's eight eyes, and here they are. I love the repeating patterns of triangular geometry in this beast. At least when in repose, nearly every view from any angle produces triangles.

This spider was just one of a great many interesting animals that we found on this day, and most cooperated well enough that Ryan was able to film them, often while I narrated. Although the spider is not a pollinator, we talked much about the web of life that develops around high quality floristically diverse habitats. Lots of flowers draw lots of pollinators. Lots of pollinators attract lots of predators, such as this spider. And up the food chain it goes, with much of this life sparked by flowers and their need to lure pollinators.


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Thursday, August 3, 2017

An odd turtle, and interesting dragonfly shot

A massive Spiny Softshell Turtle, Apalone spinifera, hauls out on a floating log. Of Ohio's dozen or so turtle species, the softshells are my favorites (there is another species, the rarer and more range-restricted Smooth Softshell, A. mutica).

Yesterday, I was hiking through Eastwood Metropark in Dayton, lugging my tripod-mounted telephoto rig, having just photographed an active Ruby-throated Hummingbird nest deep in the park (thanks for the help, Dean Porter!). As I neared some backwater lagoons, I noticed two large turtles basking on an old log. Knowing something of turtles and their habits, I immediately veered away and began using obstructive brush to mask my movements. By doing so, I was able to get fairly close to the wary reptiles. As good fortune would have it, one of the turtles was the animal above, and the other was a Common Map Turtle, Graptemys geographica. Both of these species are very wary and will escape into the depths at the slightest disturbance.

I worked my way around into good light, and a convenient gap in the brush. In spite of my attempted furtiveness, the turtles were onto me in a flash and I only managed a few images of the softshell before they slid off the log. In spite of retreating to cover and patiently awaiting the turtles' reappearance, they didn't return in the half-hour I hung out. I really wanted map turtle shots, too, but that'll have to come another day.

Softshells are cool on every level. They get huge, and rather than the rock-hard carapace (shell) of their brethren, the carapace of a softshell is like a leathery dinner plate. Its face terminates in an odd beaklike nose, and the feet are large paddlelike appendages. The latter allow them to swim like fish, and a softshell in the water is the epitome of aquatic grace - a reptilian Esther Williams.

My memory bank is chockfull of great softshell memories. As a kid growing up in Worthington, Ohio, a stone's throw from the banks of the Olentangy River, one of my favorite pursuits was finding these turtles. Me and my little buddies often would locate them, and occasionally we'd capture one. We quickly learned that they burrow exceptionally well. One day we grabbed a small softshell, created a rocky enclosure in shallow water, and temporarily imprisoned the turtle in it. Upon returning some time later, we were surprised to see that our turtle had apparently escaped. One of us had the sense to root around in the muck of the enclosure, and there was our turtle, buried in the mud.

Another time, I was walking across a large bridge over the river, and looked down to see a pair of softshells swimming about in the clear water. Their movements were so fluid and graceful that they put the fish to shame.

Softshells possess a rather hostile temperament, and the large ones can be intimidating. They'll not hesitate to bite, but have little fear. Their mandibles are soft and leathery and can't do much of any harm. I learned this in a rather shocking way. I'd always been careful to steer clear of their jaws when handling them - who wouldn't! - but one day I was showing a friend a large one I'd caught. He exclaimed something like "Ooh! Softshell!! - and immediately stuck his hand in its face. The turtle snapped, it didn't faze my buddy, and its bluff called, the softshell made no more attempts to bite.

I spent an excellent morning recently at the sprawling Battelle Darby Metropark in southwest Franklin County, site of one of Ohio's greatest prairie restorations. The massive grasslands and wetlands have spawned the return of many notable bird species, and I obtained excellent images of Henslow's Sparrows, and Marsh and Sedge Wrens.

The rig of choice this day was the Canon 5D IV and 800mm f/5.6 lens, tripod-mounted of course. As I neared the parking area, having trekked about two miles around the prairie, I noticed a male Blue Dasher dragonfly, Pachydiplax longipennis, hunting from a prominent perch. Many of the skimmer dragonflies hunt like flycatchers, sallying out from a perch and returning to it after bagging aerial prey. These yo-yo flights are predictable, and I used this to my advantage to make the above photo. The camera rig I described above would probably not normally be thought of as a first choice for dragonfly photography, but as we can see it can work well. The camera settings were (in manual mode): f/5.6, ISO 640, 1/2000, +0.7 exposure compensation, and no flash.

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