Thursday, April 27, 2017

Worm-eating Warbler

A gorgeous Worm-eating Warbler poses nicely in the understory of a wooded slope in Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio. I spent the day in this place yesterday on a glorious spring day. The sun shone all day long, the mercury rose into the 70's F, and migratory birds had returned in droves.

Of all the warblers that breed in Shawnee, it's possible that the Worm-eating Warbler is my favorite. It's a subtle animal in every respect. They breed on steep heavily wooded slopes with a well-developed understory, and do much of their foraging in fairly dense growth. That, coupled with the often dim lighting of their haunts, can make "worm-eaters" tough to spot. While the males sing frequently, it's not an overwhelming song. Their tune is a dry, rapid husky trill, reminiscent of a Chipping Sparrow. This is an easy bird to pass right by, even though in a place like Shawnee, an intrepid traveler might be in proximity to 50 or more of the birds in a morning.

Right now is a great time to make a study of forest breeding birds. Many, such as the worm-eaters, have just returned and the males are quite busy trying to establish territories. This means much singing, and conspicuous battles with neighbors as turfs are set up. The bird in this photo was engaged in a serious sing-off with a nearby neighbor, and constantly visited a regular series of singing perches. All I had to do was sidle into a good spot, and watch the action.

A note on the name: the specific epithet vermivorum of the scientific name means "a worm". Hence the common name. It's naming harks back to a time when scientific descriptions were less than exacting, and caterpillars were often called worms. No self-respecting Worm-eating Warbler would probably actually eat a true worm - one of the "night-crawlers" - but they avidly consume the larvae of Lepidoptera - butterflies and moths (caterpillars). Worm-eaters are somewhat specialized foragers, spending much time gleaning through hanging clusters of dead leaves. Such sites are rich in invertebrate prey.

I continue to be disgusted by the treatment of Shawnee State Forest by its "managers", the Ohio Division of Forestry. This woodland belongs to all Ohioans, harbors some of the richest biodiversity in North America, and is being logged to smithereens. Enough is enough - this is not what most Ohioans want to see, nor is it good for the health of this magnificent woodland.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Lark Sparrow

I spent a fine day in Indianapolis last Sunday, at the stellar Indianapolis Museum of Art. The museum has on display a selection of about 75 original prints from John James Audubon's seminal work, Birds of America. It's well worth a visit to see Audubon's incredible illustrations, but the museum has much more to offer, both inside and out. On the outside is 152 acres of incredible landscapes that is treated as living art. Many native plants are incorporated - in fact, the dominant biomass is native. Thus, the grounds play host to a variety of birds and other wildlife. I gave a talk on Audubon, his art, life, and travels in one of the museum's auditoriums, but beforehand was able to tag along with the museum's chief horticulturalist, Chad Franer, as he led a walk around the museum's property. I highly recommend a visit.

Early the next morning - last Monday - on my return from Indy, I stopped by a long abandoned limestone quarry near Dayton, Ohio that has been made into a park. Barren as the site may appear, it is quite birdy, and didn't disappoint.

One of the first species I encountered was a confiding Prairie Warbler. He seemingly burst with the pleasures of spring, as he sang his rising buzzy melody from the perches that define his turf.

This bird, however, was my primary target - the Lark Sparrow. It is one of my favorites among the Emberizidae, and it's hard picking favorites in such a family of stunners. For us Ohioans, the Lark Sparrow is always a treat. While it becomes quite common to the west, this species is at the eastern periphery of its range here, and quite uncommon. This fellow and at least three others were singing their peculiar buzzy trills from prominent perches. No shrinking violet, the Lark Sparrow.

I was at the park at the crack of dawn, and thus had the place to myself. So, I operated as usual when trying to photograph songbirds. After determining the location of several oft-used perches by one of the territorial sparrows, I sidled into a good position and just waited for him to make his rounds. That's how I got the previous shot. It must be said, though, that the Lark Sparrow is rather tame and not difficult to get near. Nonetheless, I wanted - as always - candid shots of the birds acting naturally, and even with Lark Sparrows that takes a bit of time and patience.

Lark Sparrows remind me of elfin quail, and like quail they spend much time on the ground foraging for plant seeds and small insects. Before long, the singer I was photographing flew to the ground not far from me and began picking about. In short order, his mate joined him and they eventually worked so close to me that I couldn't focus on them. In the shot above, the male hops atop a rock to eye me curiously, then continued on with his activities.

The birds eventually began collecting old plant stems for a nest. This fellow is quite ambitious in his selection of material.


As can be seen by this fine map, the Lark Sparrow is largely a bird of the Great Plains. Its breeding range barely extends as far east as Ohio, which is why it is such a notable treat here. The Buckeye State stronghold has long been the open sandy habitats of the Oak Openings west of Toledo, a place that they've probably bred for thousands of years. But more and more, Lark Sparrows are utilizing - in very small numbers - large abandoned stone quarries such as the one that I visited on this trip.

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

John James Audubon talk - Indianapolis Museum of Art

John James Audubon's beautiful rendering of an American Avocet, a species he found breeding near Vincennes, Indiana in 1814. That remains the state's only nesting record.

I'm giving a program this Sunday, April 23, at 3 pm at the Indianapolis Museum of Art about the one and only Audubon. The museum has about 75 of Audubon's prints from his ground-breaking work, The Birds of America, on exhibit: Audubon: Drawn to Nature. The avocet is included among them.

Audubon roamed America at a time when our habitats were largely unaltered, but lived to see sweeping changes wrought by the onslaught of European colonization. He was a woodsman through and through, and in addition to being a keen observer of nature, was arguably the greatest artist of birds to ever live. His paintings are magnificent, and broke new ground in their animation and attention to detail.

Preceding my talk is a tour of the museum's expansive grounds, which are heavily populated with native plants. Birds and other wildlife abound. For all the details, CLICK HERE.

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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Eastern Red Bat

This wonderful little woodland trail meanders along a bluff overlooking a particularly pristine southern Ohio stream. There is lots of wildflower diversity, and as is the case with sites that harbor great floristic diversity, there is lots of animal diversity.

Mostly, on this trip of last Tuesday, I was looking for a mammal - a very special little mammal. I had been here the previous Saturday, with said mammal high on the list of hoped-for targets, but no luck. We saw lots of other great things, and many nice photos were taken, but the migratory mammal that was a main quest had apparently not yet arrived in these haunts.

As you've gathered from this post's title, it was the Eastern Red Bat, Lasiurus borealis, that I was after. These tiny "tree bats" are highly migratory, and the most likely species to be seen hunting during daylight hours. When at rest, the bats typically choose trees for roosting and, as we shall see, can be incredibly difficult to spot when ensconced among the foliage.

I've seen Red Bats on numerous occasions and even photographed them on the wing. The last one that I saw was VERY up close and personal - it was captured as part of a researcher's banding project. The one before that I found napping on the side of an Ohio State University parking garage. But what had thus far eluded me was seeing this wee bat making like a leaf in a tree.

The tan-brown leaves in the photo above are those of American Beech, Fagus grandifolia, and it seems to be the tree of choice for roosting Red Bats.

To make this image, I was prone in the leaf litter. We can see the long-lingering beech leaves of a young sapling projecting in from the left. And if you look quite closely, you may notice a darker lump among those leaves - just left of dead center.

With the help of a 300mm lens and a better lighting angle, we can better make out the "lump". Target acquired - it's a roosting Eastern Red Bat! I was pleased indeed to finally see one of these bats in such habitat, and even more pleased when shortly thereafter I found another one, near eye level.

I'd say it would be a stroke of pure luck - or the result of phenomenal observational skills - for someone to stumble upon one of these bats in a beech tree. But if one is privy to their roosting habits, the odds of locating a Red Bat go way up. I knew they were likely in this area, so I searched the beech trees carefully. However, I've scoured beech for bats many times before, with no luck. Red Bats are even smaller than a beech leaf, and they tend to huddle up next to a leaf or within a small cluster of leaves.

Seen well, the animal is a beast of extraordinary beauty. The pelage is a deep reddish-orange, frosted with a silvery sheen. Small wonder they hide among leaves - the bat is amazingly leaflike and tough to spot among the foliage.

The little fox-like face exudes a certain charm, and those proportionately enormous ears are marvelous augmentations to a remarkably keen sense of hearing.

It would be interesting to know where this bat spent the winter. Red Bats are known to be migratory, and it's possible many of those that pass through or remain to breed in Ohio spent the winter in some southern state. I'm sure FAR more of them are out there than suspected. As this photo essay illustrates, they can quite easily be overlooked. April seems to be a great month for locating Red Bats, and young beech trees with their persistent hanging dead leaves seem to be the best place to search them out. So, should you find yourself in a woodland with beech, keep an eye out for these showy little bats.

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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Photography Talk! April 14.

A nymph assassin bug, Zelus luridus, awaits the arrival of small pollinating insects within the hub of a large-flowered trillium blossom. The fate of such pollinators will not be good. Imaged yesterday in Highland County, Ohio.

I'm giving a talk this Friday evening, April 14, for the Focus Group, a local photography club. Guests are welcome, and admission is free. Festivities commence around 7:00 pm, guests are welcome, and admission is free. Location is the Upper Arlington Municipal Building at 2600 Tremont Road, and more details are RIGHT HERE.

I plan on using mostly images that I've taken in recent weeks, and will cover a broad range of natural history subjects. They'll include birds, insects, plants, landscapes, and more. I also want to discuss how to find and approach subjects, composition, using images to interpret natural history, and specific photographic techniques for various subjects.

If you can make it, I'll look forward to seeing you there!

Dutchman's-breeches, Dicentra cucullaria, taken yesterday in Highland County, Ohio.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, photographed last Wednesday in Scioto County, Ohio.

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Thursday, April 6, 2017

Trillium Festival! April 15!

Our official state wildflower, the Large-flowered Trillium, Trillium grandiflorum, imaged by your narrator yesterday in southernmost Ohio. This gorgeous species is just starting to erupt in flowers.

By tax day, April 15, the trilliums will be putting on a spectacular show, and there is no better place to see them than the legendary Mathias Grove in Hocking County. This property has played host to the "Trillium Festival" for an incredible 35 years, and April 15 is the date this year.

All are welcome, and if you go be prepared for a botanical tsunami of trillia of several species, all native and in their natural forest habitat. Bring a camera, too. This year's fest features a photo contest - subject being trilliums, of course - with winners snaring fabulous prizes.

Below are flyers with all the pertinent info on the festival, and the photo contest. Click the pics to enlarge, and you should be able to make out all of the details. Or, visit the Appalachian Ohio Alliance website, RIGHT HERE.





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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Lesser Celandine: A botanical disaster

Acres and acres of rich floodplain forest are blanketed with dense mats of a highly invasive Eurasian plant, the Lesser Celandine, Ficaria verna, at Whetstone Park in Columbus, Ohio.

On a trip to Indiana last week, I found myself headed west on I-70 - the only pragmatic route for travel to Indianapolis and vicinity from here. As I passed by the Great Miami and Stillwater rivers near Dayton, I noticed great green and gold carpets cloaking the floodplain forests. The dreaded "strangler buttercup", or Lesser Celandine!

This thoroughly noxious plant has really been picking up steam in recent years. It's been a localized scourge in some areas for a long while, but now is steamrolling through floodplain forests at an epic clip. After witnessing the Dayton-area infestations from my 75 mph drive-by, I resolved to visit Whetstone Park near my home after I returned.

I hadn't been to Whetstone in early spring for a number of years, but even then large patches of celandine were already established. What I saw on my visit yesterday stunned me. It was a botanical Armageddon. Long before I even got to the lower reaches of the park and the floodplain of the Olentangy River, I began to see large patches of the stuff in the park's lawns. The floodplain was especially depressing, and the photo above sums up the situation well. The overwhelming majority of native flora and fauna have been totally displaced by the botanical scourge that is Lesser Celandine. Only the overstory trees remain native, but even they are threatened by large clinging draping masses of the invasive Winter-creeper, Euonymus fortunei. The understory is thick in many areas, but shrubs are now nearly completely comprised of another  highly invasive species, Amur Honeysuckle, Lonicera maackii.

We have the nursery industry to thank for Lesser Celandine, which, amazingly, is still readily available in the trade. Just google "lesser celandine nursery" and you will see. A popular cultivar is the aptly named "Brazen Hussy".

It's not hard to see why this plant would be a hit. It is showy, and a highly successful groundcover. Probably, when this thing first made its way to our shores and into the nursery trade, no one really knew it would eventually vault over the garden fence and create ecological chaos with native habitats.

But by now, we should be learning some lessons about the likelihood of invasiveness among introduced plants. If it is an extremely rapid to spread groundcover that grows readily from detached vegetative  parts such as tubers and bulblets (such as celandine), we're probably in for trouble. If it is a woody plant - tree or shrub - that has colorful berries and co-evolution with birds as vectors to distribute those fruit, we're probably in for trouble. Further, if the introduced plants hail from Eurasian habitats and climates similar to ours, we're probably in for trouble.

A sad pair of native Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia virginica, attempt to punch through the dense mat of celandine. The loss of native wildflowers and other native species due to this horrific infestation is stunning. Where once thick stands of bluebells, trout lilies, various native buttercups, sedges and much more flourished, now there is little to nothing other than the overwhelming Eurasian botanical armies. Attendant with the loss of the native flora is a crash in native pollinating insect populations, and many other forms of animal life.

When a celandine infestation reaches the epic proportions of the invasion depicted here, I'm not sure what can be done. Abetting this plant's rapid spread is that it best grows on regularly flooded river terraces, and the floodwaters quickly sweep plant parts into new terrain. I suspect that eradication of a given population, such as at Whetstone Park, is a long labor-intensive task, and one that would require many years of follow-up. Not to mention long-term diligence, as plants will constantly be reintroduced to the site.

The degradation of our habitats by the onslaught of nonnative invasive plants is depressing indeed.

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Monday, April 3, 2017

Eastern Spadefoot Toad - finally!

An Eastern Spadefoot, Scaphiopus holbrookii, floats among the weeds in a recently flooded agricultural field in Athens County, last Friday evening. This small, largely smooth-skinned toad is one of Ohio's most enigmatic amphibians.

I've wanted to observe spadefoots for years, but finding them isn't easy. Populations display an explosive emergence and reproductive cycle - the toads emerge en masse when weather and moisture conditions are just right, and their singing, mating, and egg-laying may all take place in a night or two. Further compounding the difficulties of locating spadefoots is their unpredictability. Emergences might take place anywhere from late March through July.

video
Laura Hughes knew of a good spadefoot locale in Athens County - one of nine southeastern counties in which they have been found in Ohio. We went there on a very wet night in early March, but nothing - it was probably just too early in the season. But, hot on the heels of a massive thunderstorm that dumped some two inches of rain in the area, we returned last Friday, March 31. Bingo! The secretive toads had emerged in large numbers, and as is almost always the case, we first detected them by the curious call of the males. They sound a bit like sheep bleating, and the call carries for quite some way. Click the video above to hear a recording from Friday evening.

The site is not a natural wetland, but a low-lying agricultural field along the Hocking River. It was planted in corn last year. Heavy rains, and overflow from swollen river waters, inundate the field for short periods. Thus, the site is not high in amphibian diversity - only the most adaptive species seem to occur there. There were many Spring Peepers, such as above.

Many American Toads were also in the waters, with some males singing. This is a pair in amplexus, or the mating "hug" (male on top). I also heard a Green Frog or two, and a few Western Chorus Frogs, but that was about it.

This is what we had come to find, though - the fascinating Eastern Spadefoot. I met Laura on the southeast side of Columbus around 8 pm, and initially we had reservations about the evening's prospects. The temperature seemed to be dropping, and was hovering around 46 F. We felt that if the mercury plunged much lower, it would keep the toads under ground. However, as we moved south, the temperature gradually rose to about 50-51 F and remained there until nearly midnight, when we left. Plenty warm for amphibians.

A spadefoot, showing its wide spread big goggle eyes, and relatively smooth skin, at least for a toad. There are seven or nine species in its family, the Scaphiopodidae, depending on how the taxonomy is interpreted, and all but the species at hand occur in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico.

Eastern Spadefoots apparently spend most of their life underground, thus a thorough understanding of their life history is tough to ferret out. Limited observations suggest that toads probably come above ground more often than is though, at least on wet or very humid nights, but detection is by far easiest during mass mating emergences, when males are vocalizing.

A closeup of the paddlelike hind foot, showing the animal's namesake spade. The elongate hardened dark ridge helps the toad dig efficiently in the sandy soft soils in which they inhabit.

A male, in full bleat. We estimated seeing or hearing at least 75 toads, but given the size of the site and that we covered only a small portion, I'm sure many others were present.

Finally catching up with this amphibian, and bearing witness to the spectacle of a breeding frenzy, was quite a treat. However, the experience raised numerous questions. Where exactly did the toads come from? How far do they wander? What's the primary diet? How many other populations of this highly secretive animal are out there (listed as state-endangered)? And more.

I can think of a number of other seemingly suitable sites for spadefoots in southeastern and southern Ohio. Hopefully, and now with a much better search image, I will be able to check some of them out during this spring and summer's heavy downpours.

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Sunday, April 2, 2017

Loon's eerie call brings visions of wilderness

A common loon in the process of molting into its breeding plumage

April 2, 2017

NATURE
Jim McCormac

A common loon in the water looks like a surfaced submarine. With a quick flick of its feet, the bird slips below the surface; it might reappear a far distance from where it submerged.
The loon is a large diving bird, far more at home in water than on land. A chunky specimen can weigh 10 pounds, stretch nearly 3 feet from bill to tail tip, and have a wingspan of almost 4 feet.
Large, paddlelike feet are located at the bird’s extreme posterior, the better to propel it into the depths. Loons are extreme divers, capable of submerging to 200 feet. Their quarry are small fish and other aquatic prey, which are seized with the large daggerlike bill.
An adult loon in its breeding finery is quite showy. Bright, ruby eyes are embedded in the coal-black feathering of the head and neck. If the sun glints off the bird, a subtle purplish-green gloss reflects back. The black upper parts are stippled with white checkerboarding and artistic bands of creamy slashes create necklaces around the throat.
Loons in nonbreeding condition are far more muted, mostly dingy brown with a whitish throat, breast and underparts. The bird pictured with this column was photographed in mid-March and is molting into its breeding plumage.
The physical appearance of the loon is trumped by its calls. On breeding lakes, and sometimes in migration, loons issue what might be the most spectacular calls of any North American bird. Howard Eaton, writing in 1910, captures the essence: “The scream of the loon, uttered at evening, or on the approach of a storm, has to my ear, an unearthly and mournful tone resembling somewhat the distant howl of a wolf. It is a penetrating note, loud and weird.”
To many, the common loon is a symbol of wilderness: the north country, sparsely populated, clad in vast expanses of boreal forest and dotted with pristine cold-water lakes. Places like northern Michigan and Minnesota and the wilds of Canada.
Charismatic loons are much beloved by people and numerous organizations have been formed to protect them. While much of the population breeds far enough north that human disturbance isn’t an issue, southern populations are threatened. Glacial lakes in populated areas are subject to shoreline development, increased boat traffic and water pollution, none of which favors loons.
While loons nest well to the north of Ohio, large numbers occur here in migration. The past few days have brought numerous reports from lakes all over the state as the loons push north.
Far more loons pass through in late fall, transiting Lake Erie on their way to winter on open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Peak passage is in November and a prime day might result in a tally of 1,000 birds.
Although loons don’t breed in Ohio, our water management, especially of Lake Erie, is important to their well-being. The big lake is a major migratory thoroughfare and recent algae issues and the likelihood of in-lake giant wind turbines might not bode well for loons and many other waterbirds.
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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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Autumn Coralroot, a most curious little orchid


As always, I have far more material than time to post it here. While curating photos today, and making sure everything is properly catalogued and safely stored, I ran across photos from a fabulous field trip from last fall. On October 8, 2016, I met John Howard in an obscure part of Pike State Forest, Pike County, Ohio, to look at some interesting habitats. There were low-lying seep-fed fenlike wetlands, and drier prairie-ish openings. As always, we found much biodiversity. At one point, John mentioned having seen a population of an odd little orchid nearby years ago, and we thought it would be worthwhile to try and relocate them. Some images follow...

John led us to a dry, undistinguished woods on a ridgetop - the sort of place that would be easy to pass by. For the most part, the timber was young second-growth, and much of the forest floor was carpeted with Ground-cedar, Diphasiastrum digitatum, a colonial fern that does well in woodlands that have a history of heavy disturbance. Yet it didn't take much searching to locate our target: Autumn Coralroot, Corallhoriza odontorhiza. A plant can be seen growing amongst the Ground-cedar in this shot.

Even on this late date, the orchids were at or near peak bloom. Even so, it's ridiculously easy to overlook them. Coralroots are myco-heterotrophic; they derive their nutrients by intertwining rootlets with subterranean mycorrhizal fungi. The fungi are the middlemen, funneling nutrients to the orchids. This is a common but imperfectly understood relationship in the orchid world (and many other plants).

A hale and hearty Autumn Coralroot is only six inches or so in height, so I spent much time prostrate on the ground for a bird's-eye view. In many cases, prostrating one's self before the subject is necessary in plant photography. We were quite careful to note the location of all orchids around us before going to the ground, not wanting to crush any of them.

Oftentimes, when framing a subject, we would look a bit beyond and there would be another orchid. And another. And more. In all, we located several dozen Autumn Coralroots and it may not even have been a great year for this population. Many orchid species have boom and bust years, and the change in above-ground numbers from year to year can be profound. In a site where relatively few orchids surface one year, a return trip the next year might produce hundreds.

In tight on a fresh flower, in its full glory. There are two varieties: Corallorhiza odontorhiza var. odontorhiza, which is these plants and the most widespread form, and variety pringlei, which apparently has a much more limited distribution. The latter has showier flowers as they actually expand fully (chasmogamous). The flowers shown here are cleistogamous - they don't open fully and are probably self-pollinating.

I had not seen this species for many years, well before I got heavily into photography. It was a treat to see this odd little orchids again, and have the opportunity to make images of them.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Spring wildflowers erupt!

I have been remiss in posting about one of the best parts of spring - the eruption of the earliest spring wildflowers. There are many signs of winter's thaw each year, but none pronounce the passing of cold and ice and the onset of spring as enthusiastically as do colorful wildflowers. Each year, or nearly so, I make a peregrination to a few special hotspots in Adams County, to steep bluffs that overlook the Ohio River. Here, spring arrives far earlier than it does to points even a few miles away - far earlier than northern lands such as Columbus, or Cleveland.

So, on March 5 I made the trek southward, and was rewarded by the spectacle of a dozen or so wildflower species peeking from the ground - the first scouts in what will later become a botanical avalanche of flora.

Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia virginica, were just starting to unfurl. One might argue that newly emerged plants, such as this one, are the showiest. The pink buds are punctuated by the first bright blue flowers. By now, this expansive hillside will be covered with acres of flowering bluebells.

One of our first "wildflowers", and one of the easiest to pass by, is the female flowers of American Hazelnut, Corylus americana, a shrub. The dangling yellowish spikes of male flowers are far easier to spot, and when one does, all that is necessary is to move in close and inspect nearby terminal branch tips. The bright scarlet flowers may be tiny, but are quite showy upon close examination.

Harbinger-of-spring, Erigenia bulbosa, had burst forth in great profusion even on this early date. It was everywhere I looked, and one notable wooded floodplain sported many hundreds if not thousands of the elfin parsleys. A whopper plant might tower only two inches or so off the forest floor, and some plants remain concealed by leaf litter.

Snow Trillium, Trillium nivale, always a crowd-pleaser and a plant that I make an effort to see each spring. This little lily - smallest of the eight Ohio Trillium species - is also the first to bloom. It's common name is apt - flowering plants are routinely blanketed by early spring snowfalls.

This individual had the good manners to grow alone on a rich bed of moss, making for good photographic fodder. The Adams County honey-hole where I photographed these Snow Trillium is in the midst of a boom year. More plants than I ever recall seeing there were shooting forth, and the population still had a ways to go before reaching peak bloom. Many thousands of plants occur here - the biggest population of Snow Trillium in Ohio, and probably one of the largest anywhere.

Hardy White Trout Lilies, Erythronium albidum, were flowering in numbers most everywhere. These graceful lily is always one of the very first wildflowers to pop up. As is always the case with small plants, the photographer must go prostrate to present them well. I had my head pressed into the forest humus to get an upward angle of the gorgeous six-petaled flower, which is only held 6-8 inches aloft on its bare flesh-colored peduncle.

By now, far more spring wildflowers will have sprung forth, and they'll reach a climax in southern Ohio in mid-April or so. I'll hope to get back down there before long, and shoot some more of them.

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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Fairy shrimp wait for wet springs to hatch

A male fairy shrimp

March 19, 2017

NATURE
Jim McCormac

On Independence Day in 1972, Harold von Braunhut was awarded a patent for "Sea-Monkeys." They already had become the stuff of legend; he had been selling the seemingly magical creatures under that name for a decade.

One need only buy a packet of eggs, add water and voila, soon Sea-Monkeys will be swimming around the aquarium. They are actually a type of brine shrimp, and the eggs are in a state of cryptobiosis, a dormancy broken by moisture.
A wild Ohio counterpart of Sea-Monkeys are fairy shrimp. These small crustaceans also burst to life when they hit water, but their aquariums are vernal pools.
Vernal pools are small, highly specialized wetlands that normally only hold water seasonally. Fueled by snowmelt and spring rains, they peak from late February into May and have largely dried out by summer's onset.
During their brief saturation, vernal pools become nurseries for an astonishing array of life. You'll often hear the pool before you see it, courtesy of the cacophony created by spring peepers and western chorus frogs.
Early-season warm rains send armies of salamanders marching to the ponds. There, large congresses of the amphibians writhe in a short-lived mating frenzy, leaving their spawn to develop in the pools.
Massive, predatory diving beetles scoot through the water, seizing small animal prey. Casemaker caddisflies trundle along, wearing ghillie suits of twigs. Gorgeous wood ducks stop to feast on the bounty, whistling high-pitched squeals when flushed.
Arguably the most interesting organisms are the fairy shrimp. These inch-long creatures are confined to vernal pools and adulthood lasts only two months or so.
I recently was shown a beautiful vernal pool in Zaleski State Forest in Vinton County by biologist Laura Hughes. Our visit occurred after nightfall, the better to see salamander activity. Upon shining our lights into the water, we noticed scads of fairy shrimp wafting about.
The creatures had recently emerged, their eggs having lain dormant in the pool's muck for the past ten months. Like the Sea-Monkeys, the addition of water to the vernal pool had awoken them from their embryonic slumber.
Delicate and graceful, the shrimp are powered by eleven pairs of feathery legs. When alarmed, the animals dart away with a rapid burst of speed. They, like other life-forms drawn to the pool, are there primarily to reproduce. Plankton and other tiny organic matter fuel them.
Soon after mating, the female develops up to 150 hard, cystlike eggs. These are visible through a translucent pouch on her midsection. When released, the eggs fall into detritus on the pool's bottom. They can withstand drought, extreme cold and heat.
The next spring, the eggs will release larval shrimp to begin the cycle anew.
Since colonization by Europeans, Ohio has lost about 90 percent of its wetlands. Vernal pools have been hard-hit. Their small size and isolated distribution make them especially vulnerable to development.
Vernal pools are treasure troves of fascinating biological diversity and those that remain should be protected at all costs.
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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Friday, March 10, 2017

Program next Wednesday night, March 15

I'm giving a program next Wednesday evening at the Happy Days Lodge in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, for the Cuyahoga Valley Photographic Society. This is on the north side of Akron, and not too far south of Cleveland. Show begins at 7 pm, it's free, and all are welcome.

The talk is a photo-rich ramble entitled " A Romp Through Ohio's Flora and Fauna", which showcases the great natural diversity of our state, and features both well known and nearly unknown organisms. With an overarching message of conservation, of course. I've only given this talk once, but it seemed to go over well, and I look forward to running through it again - probably with some updated material.

Details can be found RIGHT HERE.

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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Salamanders and shrimp

A male Fairy Shrimp,  Eubranchipus vernalis, one of the stranger inhabitants of eastern vernal pools.

Last night was reasonably warm and rainy - a perfect night to seek salamanders and other early breeding amphibians. So, I joined Laura Hughes to head to southeastern Ohio and interesting amphibian habitats. We were specifically seeking the rare (for Ohio) Eastern Spadefoot Toad, but no luck on that. We think it's probably still a bit early for the toad, but will be back to try again.

Laura knew of a fabulous vernal pool in the nearby Zaleski State Forest, and off we went to have a look. Immediately upon wading in, we saw scads and scads of Eastern Fairy Shrimp, such as above. These are amazing little creatures that are obligate denizens of vernal pools. By capturing some and placing them in small containers with clear water, I was able to make some images. As it was raining pretty hard nearly the entire time we were at the pool, I wasn't going to take my camera rig out in the field - I've learned this lesson the hard way. The shrimp were photographed under the refuge of my Jeep's back tailgate, then returned to the pool.

We were really hoping for salamanders, and weren't disappointed. There weren't many, but we saw a dozen or so Spotted Salamanders, Ambystoma maculatum. All appeared to be male, and some were already leaving the pond, marching overland away from the water. While some egg masses were already in the vernal pool, it didn't appear that the bulk of salamander activity had yet occurred.

So, if you are hoping to seek some salamanders yet this year - at least the vernal pool-breeding mole salamanders - there's still time.

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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Male hooded merganser puts on show when courting

A male hooded merganser

Columbus Dispatch
March 5, 2017

NATURE
Jim McCormac

Signs of spring start materializing come mid-February, especially in mild winters like this one. Our first "wildflower," skunk cabbage, bursts from spring-fed mires. Buds begin to pop on elms and maples.

The earliest bees and flies appear, ready to tap nectar from pioneering spring flowers, such as harbinger-of-spring. Skunks become active, as your nose might have told you. And early birds become obvious: turkey vultures soaring overhead, killdeer yelling in the fields, and red-winged blackbirds teed up on shrubs.
As Mark Twain said, "It's spring fever. That is what the name of it is." And nothing expresses the testosterone-fueled vernal rush of hormones like male ducks. By this time of year, drakes are busily courting seemingly oblivious hens.
I recently visited a local patch new to me: Char-Mar Ridge Park, part of the Preservation Parks of Delaware County holdings. The centerpiece of the 128-acre property is a beautiful pond backed up by an aging dam. Anchored to the south shore is an excellent blind, or "hide" as the Brits would say.
Upon cresting the rise and spying the small lake, I saw a dozen hooded mergansers at the far end. Ducking into the blind and out of sight, I didn't have to wait long for the ducks to swim my way.
You might still be missing a vital part of Gaea if you've never clapped eyes on a drake hooded merganser. What it lacks in size is more than compensated for with its feathered finery. Vermiculated beige flanks are capped by a back and head of the deepest ebony. A snowy bib bordered by white slashes punctuates the sooty breast.
Topaz eyes stare inscrutably above a thin, sharply serrated bill — good for snaring slippery aquatic prey. Best of all, though, is the bird's crest. In repose, the merganser appears coiffed with a white, slicked-back mullet. But when aroused, he flips his topknot erect like a geisha's fan, completely transforming his look.
The hens are, by comparison, brown and drab. They do sport a shaggy topknot that would make a punk rocker proud. When the drakes come a courting, the females play coy and act uninterested. The studs let it rip, fanning crests and pumping heads, throwing their bills skyward while emitting weird burping groans.
These are the steps that must be taken to make little hooded mergansers.
And it can only be a good thing that there are ever more hooded mergansers, at least in this region. The first Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas was conducted from 1982 to 1987. Breeding Bird Atlas II ran from 2006 to 2011. Hooded mergansers increased by 92 percent between atlases.
A century ago, rampant deforestation, loss of wetlands, and the virtual disappearance of beavers hurt the mergansers. We've compensated for that early nature nihilism by helping to restore wetland-engineering beavers, rebuilding lost wetlands and allowing forests to rebound, which protects water quality.
Pivotal to the success of the hooded merganser are cavities, in which they place their nests. Dead and dying trees form some suitable holes, but the boom really began when people started erecting nest boxes for wood ducks. The hollow tubes worked just fine for mergansers, contributing greatly to their resurgence.
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.
Further afield
Expect to see plenty of ducks, including hooded mergansers, at the 17th annual Shreve Migration Sensation in Wayne County on March 18. The event includes a variety of talks, plus field visits to the vast wetlands of Funk Bottoms and Killbuck Marsh. For details, visit www.shreveohio.com/migration-sensation.

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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

More Florida birds

Well, back in Ohio, where the temperature will drop into the 20's F tonight, and the wind is howling. A far cry from southern Georgia and southwest Florida, where I spent the last eight days. It was pretty much a gonzo, dawn to dusk everyday, birding/photographing expedition, and a highly productive one at that. It'll take a while to sort out many thousands of photos.

The trip was not without challenges. I made my first trip into the Withlacoochee State Forest, a place known for its Bachman's Sparrows and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, among many other species. I found both, but also learned the perils of navigating the forest without benefit of four-wheel drive. My first day, I managed to stick my car but good in an undetectable soft sandy spot on a very remote forest road. That took about three hours to resolve. Also, the two days that I poked around the Withlacoochee were plagued by overcast skies and off and on rain, which made sharp, crisp photos a near impossibility. Nonetheless, I look forward to a return trip, in four-wheel drive mode.

But after the ill weather of the Withlacoochee, it was mostly warm weather and sunny skies. Following are a smattering of images.

A Willet stalks through surf in the Gulf of Mexico. There are two distinct subspecies, Eastern and Western, and there is talk that some day they may be carved into separate species. This is, I believe, the Western type. These big sandpipers are quite common along the Florida coast. They look rather plain, until taking flight. Then, a conspicuous white wing stripe creates a bright burst.

Another common shorebird, the Black-bellied Plover. When these birds attain breeding plumage later in spring, they'll look like a different species. Breeders have ebony underparts and snowy upperparts checkerboarded with black.

Brown Pelicans are everywhere down there, and are irresistible photo subjects. Not very challenging though, whether perched or in flight. But, capturing one with a juvenile Laughing Gull perched on its head is a bit harder. This pelican had just plunged into the water for fish, and the gull instantly landed on its head, awaiting an opportunity to pilfer a morsel.

A Sanderling, the classic wave-runner sandpiper of beaches nearly worldwide.

Much of the aural ambience of Florida's beaches comes from this species, the Laughing Gull. It's well-named, and being in close proximity to a flock can sometimes veer on the annoying when they began to loudly "laugh" en masse.

An adult Laughing Gull, in full breeding plumage. After breeding, they lose the hood and are not as spectacular. Most gull species become distinctly handsomer when in breeding condition. The bill, legs, and orbital ring (thin ring of bare flesh around the eye) become more colorful, and the plumage brightens. In the case of smaller hooded gulls such as this, the dark head cowl develops, too.

An adult Herring Gull, already in full breeding plumage. It has lost the dusky streaking on the head, which now gleams n the brightest white, and its bill and orbital ring are brilliant.

A flock of Royal Terns rest on Fort Desoto Beach. Some Laughing Gulls lurk in the background, right. I had a great time in this spot one morning. By arriving just after sunrise, one has several hours before all of the tourists arrive and the sun gets too high and harsh. A resting flock like this attracts other birds, and I photographed many species as they came and went. Also, by laying/kneeling on the sand and shooting from a low position - which yields a better perspective - the birds are less bothered. After a while, I essentially became one with the flock, and birds were all around me, sometimes within five feet. I shot this with my 70-200mm lens at 70 mm, and wished that I had brought the wide-angle 16-35mm onto the beach with me.

A Royal Tern in flight. A thing of the utmost fluid grace.

A personal favorite is the Black Skimmer, what with their strange bill and black hoodie pulled over the eyes. They use that odd bill to skim the water, just the elongated lower mandible slicing through the liquid. In this way, they are able to deftly snare small fish.

Head on with a skimmer, showing a completely different dimension to the bill. You could slice off a finger with that thing!

I spent several wonderful hours at the fabled Venice Rookery, owned by the Venice Area Audubon Society. The rookery is on a very small treed island in a little pond, and thus viewers are quite close to the action. Nesters include various egrets, herons, Anhinga, and ibis. Here, a nearly fully grown young Great Blue Heron begs for food from an adult. A second after I made this image, the young bird lunged upward, seized the adult's bill, and yanked it downward. This is how the young stimulate the adults to regurgitate food.

Burrowing Owls next, I think.

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