Thursday, March 5, 2015

Ohio Botanical Symposium: March 27

Tis the season for event promotion. And here's another one well worth a plug, and well worth attending. The Ohio Botanical Symposium, which like some primroses is now a biennial event, takes the stage on Friday, March 27 at the beautiful Villa Milano Conference Center in Columbus. CLICK HERE for details, and registration. If memory serves, the botanical symposium was started over 20 years ago by the Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves. We had about 40 people at the inaugural event. Attendance grew by leaps and bounds, requiring regular shifts to larger venues. The Villa Milano can handle about 400 people, and the remaining spaces for this year's conference are rapidly dwindling. Register soon. It usually fills up.

The keynote is Dr. Robbin Moran of the New York Botanical Garden. He authored the book A Natural History of Ferns, and will discuss the interesting hidden lives of Ohio's most interesting ferns. Another easterner, Dr. Cynthia Morton of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, will discuss urban forests and their importance. Bob Glotzhober, emeritus natural history curator of the Ohio Historical Society, will talk about the amazing botanical diversity of one of Ohio's most iconic natural areas, Cedar Bog. The "Garden Sage" herself, Debra Knapke, will wax eloquent about the state's edible plants, including ones that you can grow. Phlox is always a crowd-pleaser, and among their ranks are some of our greatest botanical eye candy. Peter Zale will give the lowdown on this colorful group. The synopsis of "Ohio's Best Botanical Finds" is always a crowd-pleaser at the botanical symposium. Andrew Gibson will detail the very best of new native plant discoveries of the last two years, which include rediscoveries of plants thought gone from the state, and plants never before found within Ohio's borders.

Your narrator is a last minute pinch-hitter, filling in for a speaker whose extenuating circumstances preclude involvement with this year's symposium. Fortunately, the subject is one that I have a passing knowledge of: goldenrods. This group is among the most beautiful and important of Midwestern plants, and I'll attempt to sell their virtues.

Ohio Goldenrod, Oligoneuron (Solidago) ohioense, one of two species of goldenrods originally discovered in the Buckeye State. Woven into the fibers of our goldenrods is some fascinating human history, and I hope to touch on some of that.

The striking lemony flowers of Wrinkled-leaf Goldenrod, Solidago rugosa, form a showy pyramidal inflorescence. Collectively, goldenrods can form a dominant part of the vegetative biomass in certain habitats, and their abundant nectar and pollen serve an abundance of insect life.

Wherever nectar-seeking bugs gather, you can be sure that predators will be waiting. In the case of goldenrods, several species of insects (and spiders), such as this Goldenrod Ambush Bug, have coevolved with goldenrod and match their substrate to a remarkable degree.

Other insects use goldenrod tissue for food, and nurseries. Perhaps you've seen these swollen protrusions on the stems of Tall Goldenrod, Solidago altissima. They're the work of the tiny Goldenrod Gall Fly. The fly's grub is seemingly safely ensconced within the hard growth of plant tissue. But alas - no one is safe! A Downy Woodpecker has drilled into the gall and excavated the tasty grub. Just one of many ecological chains formed by goldenrods.

Again, complete conference info is RIGHT HERE.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Wildlife Diversity Conference - last call!

Wednesday, March 11 is the date of the annual Ohio Wildlife Diversity Conference and you won't want to miss it. The conference is held at the Aladdin Shriner's Complex at 3850 Stelzer Road in Columbus. All of the details are RIGHT HERE.

It is customary for the conference's organizer, the Ohio Division of Wildlife, to unveil something new and interesting at the event, and this year is no exception.

Voila! That's right - a publication on lichens! Wait'll you see this thing. Authored by lichenologist Ray Showman, with photographic contributions from Bob Klips, it reveals the beauty and importance of these interesting fungus/algae combo organisms. The guide is free, and all conference attendees get one.

Also to be debuted - again, free - is this artfully designed booklet that tells you the ins and outs of milkweeds, and how they relate to monarch butterflies. And much more, such as info on many other milkweed obligate insects, which milkweeds are indigenous to Ohio, and which of them might work best for the yardscape.

Walk-ins are more than welcome at the conference, but pre-registering is best. To register, just CLICK HERE.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Star trails, Version II

In my last post, HERE, I wrote about the making of star trail photos on a rather frosty winter evening. I thought one of the resultant photos, above, was pretty cool. Not bad for a first time effort. Well, I hadn't seen nothin' yet!

I made two hour long exposures, one of which is the photo above. The other one wasn't nearly as good. It was my first effort, and I had allowed too much light to collect via too large of an ISO setting. For the next long-exposure image, I dialed things down and achieved the above result, which was an improvement.

But my research had indicated that making a long series of 30 second exposures would generally yield much better results. The only hitch is that one must digitally stitch the images together, in the order in which they were taken. So, I did indeed take a long series of short exposures, thinking that eventually I'd learn how to sew them all together. Which I did.

See below:

An ENORMOUS improvement on the long single exposure shots! And stitching them together is as easy as pie, thanks to the website! A German by the name of Achim Schaller (who must be a genius) created software that allows multiple exposures of astrophotography shots to be seamlessly melded together, allowing results such as the above image. Thanks to Toni Hartley for showing me how to work the software, too.

There is no question that the second image is far beyond the single shot exposure, for which I kept the camera's shutter open for a whopping 56 minutes. The second shot was achieved by stitching together a total of 84 images. Each exposure was 30 seconds long, and the camera was set to f/4 (wide open on my 17-40mm Canon lens), at a focal length of 17mm and ISO at 500. As mentioned in the previous post, I set the white balance to tungsten, which gives the night sky a steely blue cast. Photogs shooting in RAW could convert to that white balance mode later, in post-processing, but why not get it right of the can. Of course, to shoot uninterrupted 30 second exposures over the better part of an hour, one must use a remote shutter release that will lock in place, thus constantly tripping the shutter until told to quit.

The reason that the second image is superior is in large part due to the much shorter exposures. There was more ambient light where I made this image than is desirable, from nearby houses, farms, and a few distant cities. Thus, the super long exposure shots harvested tons of light, largely blowing out the stars. The short exposures did not keep the shutter open long enough to collect much light other than that of the targeted stars, thus the much showier photo. After shutting down the camera, all that remains is to stitch all of the images together, and as reported earlier that is pretty simple with good software.

I eagerly await the return of the new moon, hopefully with attendant clear skies. Then, a trip to a truly dark corner of earth will be in order.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A cold sky indeed!

Last night was bitterly cold here in central Ohio, as evidenced by my car's thermometer. Yes, it says -20 F, as in MINUS TWENTY. I knew it was going to be about as cold as I've ever experienced, and I wanted to experience such frigidity. So, after getting home from work last night, I took a nap. Then got up, prepared, and headed out the door around midnight.

The only way that I could think of to try and visually portray the brutally cold temperatures was with sky shots. As is usually the case when the mercury plunges to extreme lows, the sky was bright and clear. I headed north, with a few locales in mind. The goal was to get away from city lights, and find a VERY dark spot, perhaps with some interesting scenery. As I worked north of Delaware, the temperature fell until it hit the reading above, which was at the spot where I made the following image. As an interesting footnote, the extreme cold noticeably effected the way that my car drove. It felt wooden and clunky, and fuel economy dropped to less than half of what it would normally be.

I eventually landed in this remote cemetery, and set up the camera gear to make my first stab at shooting star trail photos. There are essentially two ways to expose the camera to capture the earth's rotation, thus making the stars appear to streak across the sky. One is to take a long series of 30 second exposures (or thereabouts), and later stitch them together with editing software. I did take a long series of such shots, but have not yet stitched them. I'm curious to see the results.

The other technique is to take a VERY long single exposure, which is how this shot was made. I did learn at least two things from this exposure. One, as dark as it seemed, there still was probably too much ambient light pollution from distant cities and towns. And two, a distant farm with its attendant night lights shows up far too well - like the onset of a sunrise. I did not know these things. But I look forward to learning from my errors and trying some more star trail shooting.

This image was made with my Canon 5D Mark III firmly affixed to a tripod. For foreground interest, I placed the cedars along the right side of the image, and that small round tree in the lower lefthand corner. I used the 17-40 f/4 ultra wide angle lens, set to a focal length of 25mm. The aperture was at f/8, and ISO at 100. Here's the kicker - the shutter speed was 56 minutes. To get that long of an exposure, you must use the Bulb setting, and trigger the shutter with a locking remote release. Also, the white balance was set to the "tungsten" setting. That gives the sky a more metallic blue look. Finally, Polaris, or the North Star, is near the top left corner of the image. Focusing on or near this celestial body adds interest, is it seemingly remains stationary while the other stars appear to rotate around it.

All of this worked quite well - I just need to find totally dark areas to shoot star trails, AND wait for one of our rare cloudless nights where the moon is not full.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Gadwall, a study in understated aesthetics

The tail waters of Hoover Dam, northern Franklin County, Ohio, last Monday. There was a wee bit of a nip in the air - it was about 10 F - creating a steam cloud from the flume of warmer water exiting the dam. As the catch basin remains ice-free, it is a great spot to observe and photograph waterfowl at reasonably close range.

A drake Mallard tips up to scavenge algae from the rocks. One must admire the hardiness of fowl on a frigid day, as they cavort in water barely above freezing on the downside, and air that is far frostier yet on the upside. The geese and ducks go about their business as if it is a summer day. Less hardy human observers shiver and shake, and would quickly perish if they fell into this drink.

There were several species of ducks plying the waters on this day, including this handsome pair of Northern Shovelers. Note how the hen swims with her rotund spoonbill skimming the water, seining up food. She could easily be dismissed as some other species of somberly hued hen duck, but the fat bill and emerald-green wing speculum give her away instantly. As does her distinctive companion.

While shovelers, wigeon, Hooded Mergansers, and other ducks are cool, it was the Gadwall that mostly intrigued me. I've always rooted for underdogs, and this duck just does not get its proper due. From afar, even a drake such as this can look unassuming and blend with the masses. Waterfowl illiterati might not even notice the Gadwall.

Hen Gadwall are even less distinguished, and look quite female Mallardesque. Note her white speculum peeking through - it often shows on resting birds - and the richly scalloped look to the back.

Wintry as it may be, it is Spring - Spring! - for the fowl, and bonds have already been struck. This charcoal-rumped drake Gadwall watchfully escorts his mate. They no doubt pine for breeding grounds far to the northwest, but ice-choked waters hold them back. Come the spring thaw, they'll bumping against ice-out until they reach their prairie pothole or whatever northern wetland they seek for the making of more Gadwall.

The English name of this duck is odd, and it seems that no one is quite sure of its origins or even exactly what Gadwall means. The scientific name Anas strepera is easier to interpret. Anas = "duck", and strepera = "noisy". One of the aural delights of a spring marsh packed with ducks is the comically nasal blurting quacks of drake Gadwall. CLICK HERE to listen for yourself.

After a bit, a drake Gadwall drifted near, and began bathing - plunging his head under the icewater, and showering itself with spray. I locked the camera on the bird, hoping for interesting compositions, and was not disappointed. In this shot, taken in mid-shake and frozen with a 1/5000 shutter speed, the true majesty of this bird smacks one in the face. It is like an ornately detailed work of art. Note the extremely fine vermiculations of the flank and breast feathers - avian op art in real life. The fanned plumes are nearly egretlike, and the duck reveals its wing panels of chestnut, ebony, and ivory. When caught primping like this, the wallflower becomes a supermodel!

The Gadwall blows the water off with powerful strokes of its wings, offering another perspective of its beauty. Suffering the breezy chill of a frigid February day was well worth it, in order to do a shoot with one of our most beautiful ducks.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Vanilla Ice meets Cooper's Hawk

This is the front page of one of the sections of last Sunday's Columbus Dispatch, and I was pleased to see my column, Nature, got the banner treatment. As did my Cooper's Hawk photo. This isn't the first time that I've managed to come up with something interesting enough to get bannerized, but IT IS the first time that any of my work has shared space with Vanilla Ice.

Yes, THAT Vanilla Ice. He of the explosive 1990 hit Ice Ice Baby, complete with its unmistakable stuttering bass line. Sorry, I imagine that little rapster ditty is now incessantly circling some of your brains, and it may not soon go away. And if his big hit isn't yet wedged in your mind, CLICK HERE.

Well, it turns out that Mr. Robert Matthew Van Winkle (no wonder he goes by Vanilla Ice) is an accomplished home remodeler. That's why the Dispatch featured him on the front page of the At Home section. But as I can't help noting, below my stuff.

Sharing the page with Vanilla Ice. Wonder if this is going to be the pinnacle of my career?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Cooper's hawk is songbird assassin

Cooper's hawk is a songbird assassin

February 15, 2015

Jim McCormac

Few visitors to backyard bird feeders are as polarizing as the Cooper’s hawk.

Many songbird lovers have recoiled in horror when one of these feathered furies has barreled into the yard and plucked a cardinal from the air.

The Cooper’s hawk is the common backyard plunderer of songbirds.

Bad attitudes toward the magnificent raptor go way back. Early ornithologists disparaged them, adding legitimacy to efforts to soil the bird’s reputation and provide fuel for hawk shooters. Said William Dawson, author of the 1903 book Birds of Ohio: “THIS is the real culprit! Punish him who will (for its) . . . evil deeds/"

Waxing anthropomorphic about Cooper’s hawks is irresistible. The hawk possesses the strategic genius of Genghis Khan, the slick agility of Wayne Gretzky and a punch like Mike Tyson.

Cooper’s hawks feed almost entirely on songbirds. Their short rounded wings and long rudderlike tail allow the birds to maneuver like stunt planes. Females are much larger than males and will sometimes take down squirrels. A hawk on the hunt might sit quietly in a tree, awaiting prey. Other times, the bird will explode into a flock of potential victims, using shrubs, houses or other obstacles to hide its approach.

An adult Cooper’s hawk is beautiful. The upperparts are shaded a rich bluish-gray, and colorful orange barring stripes the underside. The head is capped with black, as if the hawk has donned a hoodie, and under that are glaring red eyes (stare into a Cooper’s hawk’s eyes and you’ll be struck by the absolute fearlessness within). Young Cooper’s hawks are clad in muted browns with bold smudgy streaking below.

While common today, Cooper’s hawks’ populations plummeted in the mid-1900s. Harvesting by gunners played a role, but environmental contamination by DDT was worse. The pesticide interfered with raptor reproduction cycles. Following the ban on DDT in 1972, Cooper’s hawks began to recover.

When one feeds the songbirds, one also feeds Cooper’s hawks. One invites them into the yard by providing a buffet of cardinals, jays, sparrows and such. Rather than excoriating the hardworking hawk for plying its trade, one should instead appreciate the hawk for what it is. A Cooper’s hawk is the pinnacle of avian engineering, an indomitable spirit of the wild in the midst of our largely domesticated lives.

As do all high-end predators, Cooper’s hawks play a vital role in creating equilibrium among populations of lesser beasts.

Some people just don’t like the way they go about it — although many folks who deride a Cooper’s hawk for doing what comes naturally would defend the nonnative house cat that slays backyard birds.
Cats are beautiful and have their place — in the house. Leave the bird-hunting to the natives such as the majestic Cooper’s hawk.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at