Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Two great conferences

The annual Ohio Natural History Conference takes place on February 27 at the Ohio History Connection (Historical Society) building in Columbus. This is a great venue for such a conference, and you won't want to miss it.

Lots of great talks will be heard, including one by the cicada-master himself, Gene Kritsky, who will speak about periodic cicadas. As you may know, a mass emergence will take place across much of eastern Ohio this year. I made the photo above in 2008, when a smaller cicada brood erupted in southern Ohio.

The inimitable Joe Letsche is speaking about his work with one of our most fascinating serpents, the gentle Rough Greensnake. He has uncovered all manner of interesting nuggets about these secretive creatures. I made the photo above last fall while on a foray with Joe at his Chillicothe-area stomping grounds.

There will be many other points of interest at this conference, including a great keynote by the one and only Guy Denny. To register, CLICK HERE.

Registration is now open for the fabled Ohio Wildlife Diversity Conference. This year's keynote is none other than Chip Taylor, the founder and director of Monarch Watch. Few people know more about the charismatic Monarch than Chip, and his talk is a must-see.

There'll also be programs on flying squirrels, woodpeckers, pollinators, bird migration and more. This is always a great event, so mark your calendars for April 12. Full details and registration info is RIGHT HERE.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Bluebirds hunting and eating

A stunning male Eastern Bluebird hunts insects from a conspicuous perch. While these seemingly gentle creatures are thrushes - a group known for shrinking violets in this part of the world - I think of bluebirds as "hawk-thrushes".

I found myself roaming parts of south-central Ohio last Saturday, on an unseasonably balmy day. Temps hit near 50 F, and that got some insects stirring. One of the places that I visited was Stage's Pond State Nature Preserve just north of Circleville. Recent habitat management there left a savanna-like situation, with a recently mowed meadow interspersed with scattered small trees. Perfect bluebird habitat, and sure enough there was a small flock hunting the site.

I'm certainly not the only one smitten by bluebirds. This species - all three species, actually - have a virtual cult following. Much of their fan club is driven by "bluebirders" who collectively erect scads of free housing for these cavity-nesters. I'm not among their ranks - I've just always liked these beautiful songbirds for their good looks, pleasing warbles, and interesting behavior.

So, when I noticed the pack of bluebirds waging battle against the insects in the grass below, I semi-concealed myself, remained as still as possible, and watched/photographed the animals for an hour or so.

The female in the photo above is watching the ground with keen eyes. Moments after I made the photo, she flutter-dropped to the ground and seized something. Maybe one of the sluggish but still active grasshoppers, I'm not sure. In any event, this is classic Eastern Bluebird hunting modus operandi. Sit on an often-exposed perch over good foraging habitat, watch for prey, and fly down and seize the victim. Much like a Red-tailed Hawk or many other raptors do. The scale of the prey is just smaller.

As I was working my way back to the parking lot, I spotted this male bluebird as it darted into an unkempt patch of vines adorning a small tree. Yes! - he was going to harvest the fruit of one of my favorite plants, and also give me an opportunity to photo-document yet another species feeding on the berries of poison ivy, Toxicodendron radicans.

Poison ivy is one of the most disparaged of our plant species, and I suspect most Homo sapiens who revile it don't know that it is native (or care). But poison ivy has been a part of North America's landscape for far longer than we've been around, and many animals have developed a relationship with the plant. Including bluebirds.

The berries of this dermatitis-inducing plant are apparently mighty tasty to the feathered crowd, and probably loaded with nutritional value, too. While this is the first time I've managed to photograph a bluebird in the act of eating ivy berries, it's not the first time I've seen such behavior. I've also watched American Robins, and Hermit and Swainson's thrushes eat the stuff. Yellow-rumped Warblers are addicted to the poison ivy fruit. It's amusing to watch gargantuan Pileated Woodpeckers dangle from the flimsy, swaying vines as they attempt to pluck the small berries. And many other birds take advantage of the fruit of this oft-reviled plant.

Should you be interested, CLICK HERE for "A Brief Essay in Defense of Poison Ivy" that I wrote almost exactly two years ago.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Hardy Seuss-like Himalayan beasts among stars of the Wilds

The Sichuan takin, among the species in the Wilds, is a lumbering mammal native to the frigid highlands of the Himalayans in Tibet and China

Hardy Seuss-like Himalayan beasts among stars of the Wilds

January 31, 2016

Jim McCormac

One of my favorite places is the Wilds in Muskingum County.

Sprawling across almost 10,000 acres, the massive conservation center is a bonanza for bird-watchers. In the summer, its meadows ring with the songs of bobolinks, Eastern meadowlarks, and many other species.

Wintertime brings raptors: Northern harriers, short-eared owls, rough-legged hawks, even rare golden eagles.

I was there Dec. 26 to participate in the Chandlersville Christmas Bird Count, which includes the Wilds. Although plenty of wild birds were to be found, it's the mammals that steal the show.

It's surreal to be scanning the meadows for birds and spot a trio of Bactrian camels on the horizon. A group of distant animals materializes into a herd of fringe-eared oryx. These muscular African antelopes sport long spikelike horns. A large pack of American bison dots a neighboring hillside, while Przewalski's horses - native to Mongolia - graze on another slope.

Of the Wilds' exotic stock, my favorite is the Sichuan takin (tock-in). The lumbering beasts resemble musk oxen and project a standoffish surliness that is somehow endearing. Big bulls can weigh more than 700 pounds. Although takins are occasionally referred to as "goat-antelopes" because of similarities to those animals, they remind me of a cross of a moose, bear, and wildebeest. They'd fit well in a Dr. Seuss story.

Takins are hardy animals, native to the frigid highlands of the Himalayans in Tibet and China. Their massive nostrils warm air before it enters the lungs, and oily skin secretions prevent water penetration, further protecting them from bitter cold. They typically inhabit dense bamboo forests, sharing habitat with a more famous mammal, the giant panda.

The takin's coat is a spectacular patchwork of dense brown and black fur capable of keeping the animal warm in the frostiest air. It has been claimed that the takin's beautiful pelage was the inspiration for the Golden Fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts of Greek mythology.

The Wilds is North America's premier wildlife conservation center, housing nearly two dozen species of large mammals. Many of them are imperiled in their native ranges. The staff has been successful in breeding many species and advancing knowledge that aids in conservation of wild populations.

Visitation opens in May, and I highly recommend a trip. Visit

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

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Two cool raptors

Maybe once a year, I get hit with the flu/cold/whatever it is, and it hammers me for a day or so. This was the week, and the flu-cold shut me down on Tuesday. Other than that, I made it to work every day. Unfortunately, some of the ill side-effects are a bit slower to depart, and I didn't feel up to any epic travels this weekend.

So this morning, I hit a few local hotspots with certain targets in mind. Two of which follow.

As always, CLICK THE PHOTO to enlarge

It appears that one of the local Great Horned Owl pairs has commenced the business of making owlets. This cavity in a massive white oak is a site used a number of times in past years by the owls. As she's been nestled into this same spot for over a week now, she must be on eggs. A typical clutch is two eggs, and the female owl does all of the incubation. The male earns his keep by bringing regular meals to her.

Late January is right on schedule for nesting Great Horned Owls in central Ohio. The female owl's extraordinary feathering allow her to maintain an incubation temperature of about 98 degrees even when the ambient air temperature plummets to minus 20 or colder. Such early breeding syncs the arrival of the baby owlets with the peak spring activity of striped skunks. Great Horned Owls are one of few predators that regularly make meals of skunks, and this striped delicacy is an entrée regularly served to many an owlet.

An utterly fearless Merlin glares at the cameraman. There was another nearby, occupying Union Cemetery in Columbus. They've been present all winter, and are remarkably tame even by urban Merlin standards. Nonetheless, I would not advise getting TOO close. One hundred or so feet away is plenty near for outstanding views, and the bird or birds will probably not even bother to register your existence at that range. Lest you wonder how I could get such a frame-filling image from afar, I was using a telephoto rig with the equivalent to about a 1120mm focal length.

The Merlin stretches his appendages during a bout of preening. I noticed that his right foot and leg were still bloody. These small falcons are bird specialists, and I suspect the blood issued from a hapless songbird of some sort - maybe a starling if luck is with us.

I'm trying to force myself to be somewhat mellow until this flu-thing fades completely, so after about an hour with the Merlins, I headed for home. I'll hope to get back for some more, though. They're great fun to watch, because sooner or later, the hunger pangs will strike and the falcon will go on the hunt. Few things are as remarkable as the spectacle of one of these feathered bullets turning on the juice, flying down some luckless bird, and pulverizing it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Cedar Bog in winter

The meadows of Cedar Bog in a state of temporary dormancy, as seen last Sunday. I stopped by here on my way to Dayton and Aullwood Audubon Center, where I was slated to give a talk. While the vast majority of my many dozens of trips to Cedar Bog have been in warmer seasons, I like to occasionally stop by in the dead of winter. It gives one a broader sense of perspective to see these sites in all seasons. Come spring, Cedar Bog will burst to life in an explosion of flora and fauna. It is a must-see natural area.

At one point, this tiny Winter Wren popped out from under the boardwalk to regard me with bright curious eyes. He was no doubt hunting spiders and other such succulent fare in the sub-boardwalk's gloom. As if to help cast off fears that winter will never end, he flitted to a nearby root tangle and burst into song. The voice of a Winter Wren must be heard to be believed: a stunningly complex gushing aria that puts nearly all other North American birds to shame.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Photo Workshop - March 12th or 13th - Goose Pond!

I am pleased to be working with photographer extraordinaire David FitzSimmons and Roberts Camera in Carmel, Indiana, for two one-day photo workshops. More on them HERE. Our venue is the amazing Goose Pond near Linton, Indiana, a place that has already taken on legendary status in the birding world. Read about Goose Pond HERE.

Dave and I will each give an indoor lecture about various facets of photography, but the majority of the time will be spent afield. As Goose Pond should be teeming with birds in mid-March, that's what we'll mostly focus on. But there will certainly be time to dabble in other subjects such as showy landscapes, HDR techniques, and even macro photography.

A trio of Redheads coasts in for a landing. We'll really focus on bird photography tactics, including getting sharp in-flight shots. There should be lots of meaty subjects about, including many species of ducks, and thousands of Sandhill Cranes.

March is the month that spring really bursts to life. Red-winged Blackbirds will be gurgling away and the marshes should be ringing with the calls of Spring Peepers and Western Chorus Frogs. We'll do our best to see - and photograph - all of it. And learn lots of tips and tricks in the process. Not to mention see lots of birds, and learn more about our feathered subjects and their identification.

We welcome all levels of photographers, especially beginners to intermediates.

If you're interested in attending, just CLICK HERE for more information and registration details.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Triangle spider wields web as a sneaky snare

A tiny triangle spider holds its web


January 17, 2016

Jim McCormac

I hate to break it to you, arachnophobes, but spiders are everywhere, even when snow flies and the air is super-chilled. The ones in your house (and there are many) have it easy. Not so with the spiders that remain feral and outdoors, where most people wish they would stay.

Huge numbers of spiders spend winter in leaf litter, in tree bark, and on twigs and branches. On wintry days when the temperatures rise above freezing, some become active and go on the hunt.

Dec. 12 was relatively balmy, with afternoon temperatures reaching almost 50 degrees. I met naturalists David and Laura Hughes at Clear Creek Metro Park on the north edge of the Hocking Hills for photography and exploration. Clear Creek is a biological hot spot and always produces interesting sightings.

We hadn’t gone far down a trail when Laura spotted a tiny web, over which an even tinier spider stood vigil. She had found the amazing triangle spider (Hyptiotes cavatus).

The triangle spider constructs a perfect vertical wedge of a web; sort of a silken pie slice of doom. This web is far easier to spot than the 3-millimeter spider that tends the trap.

As the spider completes the web’s construction, it ratchets the small end taut via an anchor line. It pulls this line ever tighter, until the spider is holding the web under great tension, like an archer who has drawn a bowstring to full tautness.

When prey — usually a tiny insect — hits the web, the spider releases the anchor line. The web goes slack and engulfs the victim in a sheet of silk. Sometimes the spider gives the web a few hard jerks to further ensure that the prey is entangled.

The triangle spider belongs to the Uloboridae family, which is mostly tropical — only 16 species occur north of Mexico. While most spiders produce sticky silk, these spiders create nonsticky silk via a specialized organ called the cribellum. Such silk is soft and puffy, and when employed as a quick-release snare is quite effective at snagging victims.

Another noteworthy oddity of Uloboridean spiders is that they are nonvenomous. All other North American spiders possess potent venom. When a victim is snared, the triangle spider rushes out and deftly enshrouds it with dense wrappings of silk, like a mummy embalmed by an overzealous undertaker.

When the wrapping is complete, the spider bites the thoroughly immobilized prey through the silk. The bite releases potent digestive enzymes, which serve to rapidly liquefy the victim’s innards. As noted by Dr. Richard Bradley, author of Common Spiders of North America, “The extensive wrappings of silk may assist in holding the gushy mass together during feeding.”

After consuming its meal, the little spider fastidiously reorganizes its web, tightens the drawstring and awaits another victim.

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.jim