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Once thought lost, rare orchid reappears in Ohio

Heart-leaved twayblade, Listera cordata
Once thought lost, rare orchid reappears in Ohio
COLUMBUS DISPATCH
May 31, 2015

NATURE
Jim McCormac

The orchid family is gargantuan, with an estimated 22,000 species. It is thought to be the second-largest flowering plant family, barely bested by the sunflower family.

Orchids reach their peak in tropical climates, which Ohio is decidedly not. The Buckeye State hosts a mere 46 native species (and one weedy non-native, the helleborine).

Most of our orchids are finicky specialists. Many species are wedded to rare habitats such as bogs, fens and wet prairies. Changes to the landscape after European settlement have not been kind to orchids (or most of our 1,800-plus species of native plants).

In total, 22 orchid species are listed as endangered, threatened or potentially threatened. Another four are considered extirpated, or locally extinct. Extirpated species occur elsewhere but have not been seen in Ohio for at least 20 years.

When an extirpated plant…

Eastern Meadowlark, calm before the storm

Finally home, after eleven days afield in northern Michigan. This was my sixth consecutive year of leading field forays in Presque Isle County, based out of the beautiful Nettie Bay Lodge, ably managed by Jackie and Mark Schuler. Our group was absolutely magnificent, and we hit it out of the park when it came to birds and other wildlife. I'll share more of those adventures later.

Prior to my group's arrival, I spent three days with Doug Tallamy and his friend John McIntyre (spelling? Sorry John, can't find your card). As an aside, read Doug's recent op-ed in the New York Times, RIGHT HERE. Both are avid lensmen, and sport big glass. We tromped around the north woods and found tons of interesting subjects. Between this photo foray and the shooting that I did after my group left, I popped off perhaps 5,000 images. Why so many, you may ask? Is he daft? Well, maybe, but my Canon 7D Mark II clicks off 10 shots a second in burst mode and that quickly adds up. Oftentimes, I&#…

Northern Michigan birds

Greetings from northern Michigan's Presque Isle County. I've been up here for a week, so far, and have been burning the candle at both ends. Doug Tallamy and John MacIntosh were up for a few days, and we collectively shot off many thousands of images. Then my group came in last Sunday to base camp at the beautiful Nettie Bay Lodge and we've been tearing it up ever since. Many amazing experiences, a huge bird list racked up thus far, and an incredibly exciting life mammal for your narrator (more on that later).

Yesterday was the most amazing day in the jack pine country that I've ever had, and today's foray to the shores of Lake Huron brought over 400 migrating Broad-winged Hawks, among MANY other interesting observations. We've been having a great time, and everyone is seeing lots of new things, and seeing most of them quite well.

Following are a few avian delights that I managed to snap photos of in the past few days...

Lincoln's Sparrow, gushing forth his…

The ferocious dragon hunter

Dragon hunters, even as youngsters, are ferocious Columbus Dispatch NATURE Jim McCormac
May 17, 2015

The first column I wrote for this newspaper — appearing Aug. 16, 2005 — was about the dragon hunter, our largest species of dragonfly.

Hagenius brevistylus, as the dragon hunter is formally known, is a brutish insect. An adult can measure 31/2 inches. Comparatively small eyes cap a beefy, broad-shouldered thorax. Long, powerful, spiny legs seize prey, which the dragonfly plucks from the air.

Dragon hunters are extreme aerialists, putting on Ferrari-like bursts of speed and jagging with mind-numbing quickness. They use their skills and power to overcome big victims such as swallowtail butterflies and other dragonflies almost as large as themselves.

A large part of the dragon hunter’s mission is to make more dragon hunters. When a male encounters a willing female, he roughly grabs her by the head and mates with her. The courtship is Neanderthalish, no gentle New Age insect here.

Dragon hunte…

Caterpillar season!

On recent forays, I have been noticing caterpillars everywhere. Most are small early instars - just little tubes that are easily missed. Those that survive will grow dozens of times bigger and more meatier than they are in their earliest instars, or growth stages. The first big seasonal flush of caterpillars coincides with spring leaf out. Many of the early caterpillar species are ones who overwintered in the egg stage; their hatching coincides with the appearance of leaves, which will be their food. In a perfectly orchestrated symphony, our migratory songbirds arrive just as this caterpillar bloom is starting. Inestimable scores of caterpillars become the fuel which propels the warblers, vireos, tanagers, orioles and most of the other songbirds (and some nonpasserines) that we enjoy observing.

The eastern deciduous forest biome, which cloaks much of the eastern half of the United States, stretching from the Gulf Coast to southern Canada, grows the lion's share of caterpillar bi…

Native azaleas attract swarms of pollinators

I had a very interesting field trip today. It involved a "life orchid", among many other interesting finds. More on some of that later, I hope. A brief peregrination into Shawnee State Forest also produced some noteworthy observations, not the least of which was the flowering of pinxter-flower azaleas, Rhododendron periclymenoides. These small shrubs were near peak bloom, their spindly boughs awash with pink flowers. Every bit as nice as the architecturally interesting flowers was the constant parade of pollinators. Here, a pair of spicebush swallowtails, Papilio troilus, battles for primacy at a particularly coveted snarl of blossoms. Eastern tiger swallowtails, several species of skippers, and both hummingbird clearwing and white-lined sphinx moths also visited.

If you are looking for an especially showy situation in which to photograph butterflies, I would head to Shawnee in the next week or so. Cruise the forest roads and watch for blooming azaleas. Set yourself up in a…

Dragonfly in flight, and the new Canon 7D Mark II

A female Common Green Darner, Anax junius, at rest, showing the bulls-eye mark on top of the frons (nose). This is a large, common, and spectacular species.

Last Saturday, while at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area along western Lake Erie, a bunch of us were standing around awaiting the emergence of a Kentucky Warbler that had secreted itself in some shrubs. Growing restless, I focused my attention on some nearby Common Green Darners that were dashing about. Just like many of the birds at Magee, these big dragonflies are highly migratory. Large numbers pass through the western Lake Erie marshes, often pausing to feed. This one is a male, with its beautiful sky-blue abdomen. Where he came from is anyone's guess: The coastal Atlantic states, the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, somewhere in the Caribbean, maybe even Mexico or points south.

Shooting fast moving dragonflies in flight offers a challenge for photographers. Good gear definitely helps, but so does steady hands smoothly tracking the s…

Magee Marsh warbler madness

A tiny fraction of the thousands of birders that descended upon Magee Marsh Wildlife Area in Lucas and Ottawa counties, Ohio, last Friday. Even more people were in the area the next day, which was International Migratory Bird Day. Spring songbird migration is near peak, the Biggest Week in American Birding is in full swing, and there are few better places to be if you are a warbler enthusiast.

I was there all day Friday and Saturday, and a good chunk of today as well. In all, I spent about 20 hours on the boardwalk "Bird Trail", mostly working with newer birders and helping them find and identify birds. Consequently, I took far fewer images than I normally would in that amount of field time, but did manage a few. The Canon 7D Mark II coupled to the 100-400 mm 4.5-5.6 II was slung over my shoulder, so shots of irresistible subjects would not be missed. By the way, this rig is certainly one of the best for handheld bird shots. Not only that, it is extremely versatile and I al…

Great Horned Owl owlet

A gargantuan white oak, Quercus alba, towers over a central Ohio park. Its gnarled boughs predate the founding of the City of Columbus, the municipality in which the tree resides. Over its centuries of growth, this ancient woody Methuselah has spawned enough animals to fill a small ark. Tens of thousands of caterpillars have noshed on its foliage. In turn, the caterpillars fed (and feed) legions of migratory songbirds that stop to rest and refuel in the oak's branches. Scores of squirrels have harvested its seasonal bounty of acorns. Southern Flying Squirrels have glided from limb to limb. Hawks have used the tree as a lookout post. And in this very photo, there lurks our most ferocious avian predator of all.

A cavity created by the loss of a giant limb provides a nesting spot for a pair of Great Horned Owls. Here we see the female occupying the nest cavity. She could easily be overlooked, as her plumage matches the wood of the tree quite well. I made this image back on April 1, …

New River Birding & Nature Festival

I'm just back from eight (8!) days of nonstop immersion into Nature. Sorry if I've not responded to emails etc. but I've mostly been off the grid or too busy to deal with the usual stuff. First up was a day and a half at the Ohio Ornithological Society's annual conference at Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio. That was a great time, and thanks to Julie Davis, all of the speakers and guides, and everyone else who made that conference a success. Be sure to attend next year. Then it was straight off to southern West Virginia and the New River Birding & Nature Festival. I think this was the 10th year I've helped to lead trips at this event, and it is always an excellent time. The return rate of attendees speaks for itself - 52% of this year's people had been before, and a much larger percentage of total festival attendees over the years have been back multiple times. As always, event coordinators Rachel Davis, Keith Richardson, and Geoff Heeter bent over ba…