Moth book talk: April 1, Franklin Park Conservatory

Moth book talk: April 1, Franklin Park Conservatory

I’m giving a talk on the wonderful world of moths, based on my and coauthor Chelsea Gottfried’s new book, Gardening for Moths. Chelsea will also be at this event, which is Saturday, April 1 at the beautiful Franklin Park Conservatory. And it’s free, but registration is required. If you’re interested in a book, we’ll have some there. We’d love to see you there, and for full details and to register, CLICK HERE.

As a photographic bonus, for those of you who like to take pictures, the Conservatory’s Blooms and Butterflies event will be in full swing. Free-flying butterflies – raised at the conservatory – of many species are in the massive, lushly vegetated rainforest room. It’s a great chance to not only see many showy butterflies, but excellent practice in tuning up one’s camera skills. I’m definitely taking my macro rig and heading into the rainforest after our event!

Giant Charaxes, Charaxes castor. I made this image a few years ago during the Franklin Park Conservatory’s butterfly exhibit, one of many images from that day.

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Mild winter triggers early blooming of spring wildflowers

Mild winter triggers early blooming of spring wildflowers


Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)/Jim McCormac

Mild winter triggers early blooming of spring wildflowers

Jim McCormac

Tomorrow is the official first day of spring.

March 20 is the spring equinox, when the sun is directly above the equator and day and night are of equal lengths.

Plants (and birds and most other animals) pay this celestial milestone no heed. Commencing in early February, the wildflowers respond to ever-lengthening daylight. First up is the skunk-cabbage, which springs from its swampy haunts while ice and snow are still a thing. This botanical oddity counters wintry weather with thermogenesis: the ability to produce its own heat. Flowers and pollen are present by mid-February.

Last February was especially meek in much of Ohio, with little snow and often mild temperatures. Rising soil temperatures trigger the appearance of wildflowers, and many awakened early this year. Needing a botanical fix, I headed to the Ohio River Valley on Feb. 26. My core destinations were two amazing sites owned by the Arc of Appalachia, a land trust that protects some of Ohio’s most significant natural areas.

First up was the Chalet Nivale Preserve in northwestern Adams County. Nivale (ny-val-ee) means “snowy” and refers to the scientific name of the snow trillium: Trillium nivale. The preserve harbors a massive population of this rare plant, which is only known in about a dozen of Ohio’s 88 counties. Most populations are highly localized, widely scattered and often small in size.

Plenty of trillium were in bloom by the time of my visit, the earliest I have ever seen them. Less obvious but equally interesting were the flowers of a spindly shrub, American hazelnut. Its long dangling spikes of male flowers are conspicuous, but the bigger visual treat are the tiny scarlet female flowers. They are only a few millimeters across and resemble colorful sea anemones upon close inspection.

From there, it was on south, to a spectacular east-facing bluff overlooking the Ohio River near the town of Manchester. The Arc of Appalachia owns a 300-acre preserve here known as the Ohio River Bluffs. This is the first place that I know of in Ohio where one can get their end-of-winter wildflower fix.

Even on the early date of Feb. 26, I saw over a dozen wildflower species in bloom. A tiny parsley aptly dubbed harbinger-of-spring was everywhere. A whopper is a few inches in height, yet they push through the leaf litter to present salt-and-pepper-colored flower umbels to the late winter sun. Ghostly white trout lilies, their pale flowers appearing to levitate low over the forest floor, were everywhere. This is our earliest native lily to flower.

Evidence of the rapidity of wildflower growth was a bloodroot, one of only two native poppies in the state. On my way out of the preserve, I noticed one in full bloom, its flower still unfurling. I’m confident it wasn’t there when I hiked past two hours earlier.

Ohio River Bluffs is noted for huge carpets of bluebells, but the floral show doesn’t usually take the stage until late March into early April. This year, many bluebells were already up and some were even in flower. Other early blooms were cut-leaved toothwort, hepatica, rue-anemone, and yellow harlequin.

By now, nearly a month later, far more wildflowers are out, including in the Columbus area. Good places to hunt them include Battelle Darby and Highbanks metro parks. For those in northern lands like Cleveland, Mansfield and Toledo, take hope. Spring rolls northward at about 17 miles a day, and it won’t be long until the floral show hits your areas.

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

American Hazelnut (Corylus americana)

Harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa)

White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum)

Snow Trillium (Trillium nivale)

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Some more spring wildflowers, and thoughts on composition

Some more spring wildflowers, and thoughts on composition


f/7.1, ISO 400, 1/100, 100mm macro lens

A Goldenstar (Erythronium rostratum) in its full glory. This is one of Ohio’s rarest plants and is essentially known from only one giant population in the Rocky Fork valley of western Scioto County. A much smaller population was discovered in fairly recent times a few miles to the west, in Adams County.

About every time I post photos of this species, people let me know that they have “Goldenstar” growing in their yard or local park. Not so. They are seeing the superficially similar Yellow Trout Lily (E. americanum), which is common and widespread. Goldenstar has a very patchy distribution with isolated populations far removed from its Ozarkian strongholds.

Goldenstar Distribution. Map courtesy of BONAP

Green counties indicate that the species is present and not rare; yellow indicates it is present but RARE. The northeastern Kentucky and southern Ohio populations are far removed from the core range.

Back to the Goldenstar image above. The plant was growing between projecting buttresses of an American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) trunk. There were myriad potential subjects at this site but this one especially caught my eye as beech are a common associate in the rich woodlands favored by Goldenstar. The gray elephant skin bark of the trunk made a nice backdrop, and the senescent beech leaves are a nice touch. For this image, I used a common (for me) aperture of f/7.1 to softly blur background features and put the emphasis on the extraordinary flower. There were breezes on this morning, so I elevated the ISO to 400, and that gave a shutter speed of 1/100 – fast enough to freeze any slight wind-induced tremor. I’m trying to time shutter actuations with calm periods, of course.

A wide-angle lens (Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 II) is nearly always with me when I hunt flowers. It is incredibly useful for showcasing overall habitats. For this shot, the camera was on my mini-tripod, essentially flat on the humus. The lens is around eight inches from the flower – at its minimum focusing distance – showing how ultra-wide the reach of a lens like this is.

Goldenstar favors beech-maple forests with plenty of leaf litter and is often on steep slopes. This image presents very typical habitat for the rare lily, at least insofar as the Ohio sites go. This is a case where stopping down is effective, and the camera parameters were f/16, ISO 400, at 1/100 second. The lens was at 16mm for maximum spread. In my opinion, wide-angle lenses are an essential component of the ecological photographer’s tool bag. They permit more of the story to be told.

f/9, ISO 250, 1/50, 100mm macro lens

A photogenic trio of Snow Trillium (Trillium nivale). Odd numbers can be quite appealing in regard to subjects. and I do typically find my eye more drawn to 3’s, 5’s, 7’s etc. This group caught my eye from afar and I wouldn’t have missed photographing them. This odd-even thing has even been quantified as the wonderfully named Rule of Odds. The RoO states that compositions with an odd number of subjects or elements will be more dramatic than a composition of an even number of subjects.

Pairing is common in our human bodies: two eyes, ears, hands, legs, arms, etc. The theory goes that when we look at something with odd numbers, the brain has more difficulty in grouping them, that something somewhere is leftover, and your brain commands your eyes to continue sweeping over the composition to find the “missing” part.

I don’t know about all of that, but there does indeed seem to be to be an allure to the odd that makes us want to study odd-numbered subjects in greater detail than even-numbered ones.

Here’s a very similar trio of Snow Trillium, with a slight tweak from the above image. As with the prior image, my ISO was at 200, but I stopped down to f/14. The tradeoff with smaller apertures is a diminishment of light entering the camera, which is mitigated by a slower shutter speed, 1/20 of a second in this case. By keeping the shutter open longer, the camera can harvest the same amount of light as it did when the aperture was a more open f/9 and thus could collect adequate light more rapidly – the prior shot was at 1/50. As there was no wind at this point in the early morning, I didn’t care how slow the shutter speed was – it was essentially irrelevant.

As my camera was fairly close to the subjects, the depth of field was reduced. By moving the camera farther away, depth of field increases but so will your need to crop the image to make the same composition as shown here. So, to get a more depth I just shut down one and two-thirds stops to f/14. The background was not particularly cluttered or distracting so I wasn’t too concerned about that. If you scroll up to compare with the prior image, you’ll see that the rear flower is softer. To me, either image looks fine, but I probably prefer the f/14 shot above.

It’s good practice, especially early on, to take images of the same subject with a range of apertures, to become familiar with the effects caused by aperture adjustments.

f/10, ISO 200, 1/60, 100mm macro lens

In spite of the Rule of Odds, I won’t hesitate to fire away at evens. For a few minutes, the early morning light caused this pair of trilliums to glow, while the backdrop remained largely dark. It was incredibly alluring and I’m glad I happened to be there for their brief moment in the spotlight. I suppose the situation might have been even cooler had there been three (or five), but there wasn’t. As with some prior shots, I stopped down a bit more to bring additional focus to the rear plant, especially as there were no background distractions. In hindsight I would have taken an image at f/16, too.

f/7.1, ISO 250, 1/50, 70-200mm lens at 175mm

Another violation of the Rule of Odds, but what good are rules if they can’t be violated? This ensemble of trillia was too good to pass by. They festooned an otherwise barren limestone ledge, almost as if they were purposefully planted there. I like the exposed limestone, as Trillium nivale is very much a calciphile, or limestone lover. This shot was handheld, using my Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 II lens. The plants were in a hard area to set up a tripod on, but that lens has superb image stabilization and is easy to handhold and get sharp shots at slow shutter speeds, even slower than the 1/50 used here. Normally I’ll always use a tripod if circumstances permit, though. And as an aside, I always try to remember to turn off the image stabilization on stabilized lenses when they are mounted to a tripod. If turned on, the image stabilization can lead to an effect called a feedback loop when tripod-mounted and that can lead to blurred images. Yep, just one more thing to remember.

f/7.1, ISO 200, 1/60, 100mm macro lens

I’m back in compliance with the Rule of Odds here, if only a solo subject. The petals of this Snow Trillium are already blushed with pink, a sign of aging. The flower will soon wither away. By now, just a week later, many of the thousands of trilliums in this population will be tinged with pink and it won’t be long before the flowers are gone. This site, by the way, is accessible. It is the Arc of Appalachia’s Chalet Nivale Preserve in northeastern Adams County, Ohio, and it isn’t a tough place to get around. While you may have missed the show this spring – unless you get there fast – there’s always next March.

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Mild winter triggers early blooming of spring wildflowers

Some spring wildflowers, and thoughts on the photography thereof


f/9, ISO 250, 1/100 – 100mm macro lens

A Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) grows before our eyes – or at least mine, at the time. I shot this poppy family member back on February 26 – a very early date. When I passed this spot on the trail a few hours earlier, I saw no sign of the flower. A fairly warm and virtually snowless February spurred southern Ohio wildflowers to erupt earlier than normal.

The image above and all of the following were made on either February 26, or March 9, at the Arc of Appalachia’s Ohio River Bluffs Preserve, or their Chalet Nivale Preserve. Both are in Adams County, Ohio.

When I go afield with botanical photography as the objective, I generally pack three lenses: Canon (all my camera gear is Canon) 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, 16-35mm f/2.8 II wide-angle, and the 70-200mm f/2.8 II. In the case of these images, all were shot with the Canon R5 mirrorless camera. I have examples made with two of those lenses in this post, along with some thoughts on using the gear effectively to create wildflower portraits.

f/7.1, ISO 250, 1/8 second, 100mm macro lens

Harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa) peeks from leaf litter. The hardy little parsley is one of the first spring (late winter!) wildflowers to emerge.

Even old dogs should be able to learn new tricks. At one time, I tended to use narrow apertures (often f/11 to f/16) for greater depth of field, and – horrors! – often flash. Then I met Debbie DiCarlo and we began teaching some photography classes together. I loved her botanical work and was astute enough to notice that it did not look much like mine. And I wished mine looked more like hers.

So, from her I learned about softer, more wide-open apertures, scrapping the flash, and thinking harder about composition. The Harbinger-of-spring above manifests this. Now, most of my plant work is between f/4 and f/7.1 and this image was made at the latter. The closest flowers are the focus point, and I do not care that the rest of the subject is not in sharp focus. The wide aperture melts the background but the dissected cauline (stem) leaves can still be seen.

f/6.3, ISO 200, 1/320, 70-200mm lens at 140 mm

Early Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum giganteum) has a bizarre appearance when it is emerging. Nearly all parts of the plant are an attractive purplish shade, and the flowers are already mature even as the foliage unfurls. Their bright yellow anthers provide the only punctuation point to the plant.

For this, I used my 70-200mm with a 25mm extension tube, at 140mm. The hollow tube allows for closer focusing and does not detract at all from image quality as there is not glass within it. As usual, I am in my ISO sweet spot – 200. For plants, I almost always operate between ISO 100 and 400, and normally between ISO 100-200. I want the cleanest possible files, and there is normally no need to use high ISO when shooting plants. I like the effect of the mini-telephoto 70-200, which really compresses the subject and obliterates the background. A busy background is normally not a desirable quality for botanical imagery, at least to me.

f/7.1, ISO 100, 1/40, 100mm macro lens

A White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum), the earliest of our lilies to bloom. This is a diminutive plant, and to make effective captures more challenging the flowers dangle almost straight down. I generally would prefer to have my camera horizontal to the flower, and better yet, slightly below it. The bottom line is plant photographers will spend lots of time on the ground, on their subjects’ plane.

I’m almost always working off a tripod, and my current favorite is the relatively inexpensive Oben CTT-1000, with their excellent ball head. It is made from carbon fiber, is flyweight, versatile in positioning, and allows me to get my camera nearly on the ground. Stabilizing the rig is vital, for reasons I will expound on under the next image.

f/5.6, ISO 250, 1/320, 100mm macro lens

White Trout Lily flowers are botanical will-o-the-wisps, appearing to float low over the forest leaf litter. To get this perspective, my camera was under the plant and shooting upwards, thanks to my mini-tripod.

A major reason why tripods are important in botanical photography is because slow shutter speeds are often used. Of the three major parameters – aperture, ISO, and shutter speed – the latter is least important. I want a low ISO to keep my images as clean (less noise) as possible. The aperture is a major driver as it dictates the look that I get of my subject and its environs. The shutter speed is merely whatever the aperture and ISO dictate it to be. While this trout lily flower was shot at a comparatively fast speed, the Harbinger-of-spring above was shot at 1/8 second! And the previous trout lily shot was made at 1/40 second.

No one will have much luck hand-holding a rig at such slow shutter speeds. The miss rate would skyrocket, and you likely would not get any sharp images. This is why wind is the plant photographer’s enemy. As long as the subject is immobile, one can use very slow shutter speeds in tangent with very low ISO settings, no problem. Windy days? I’m not going to be shooting wildflowers.

f/16, ISO 200, 1/2 second, 100mm macro lens

The seldom noticed pistillate (female) flower of American Hazelnut (Corylus americana). It is truly elfin and thus overlooked. This was – for me – a rare case of using a tiny aperture, f/16 in this case. I did so because I wanted sharpness throughout the bizarre blossom. The bokeh (background quality) is creamy brown because there was nothing for probably 20 or more feet behind the subject. The brown tones are caused by a distant leaf-covered slope.

Note the shutter speed – one-half second! While the camera/lens was firmly stabilized on a tripod, there are additional steps to ensure a sharp image. I set my camera’s shutter release to a 2-second delay so that my hands aren’t even touching the rig when it fires (there is also a 10-second delay option but that’s usually overkill). I also have the camera set so that I can just touch the back viewing screen with my finger, and it will instantly focus on that spot, then activate the shutter (2 seconds later). Complete stillness with the camera. Not all cameras (yet) have that touch screen option, but just about all DSLR or mirrorless cameras have the timer delay feature.

f/8, ISO 200, 1/30, 100mm macro lens

A lethargic group of Hepatica (Hepatica nobilis) flowers on a frosty morning. A few hours later, with significantly warmer temperatures, the flowers would be proudly upright and fully expanded. I stopped down a bit more than usual – to f/8 – for a bit more depth on this elfin flower forest. Focus was on the top right flower, which was closest to the lens. It’s almost always best to focus on the nearest flower, as that is where the eyes of viewers of your image will likely first be drawn.

NOTE: I take the conservative position and lump the two hepatica “species” together under the available name Hepatica nobilis. If you split them, this would be the so-called Sharp-lobed Hepatica (H. acutiloba).

In my next post, I will share short sequences of two of Ohio’s rarest and most beautiful lilies, with some thoughts on composition.

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Goldenstar already in flower

Goldenstar already in flower


A sun-soaked hillside erupts with the colorful flowers of one of Ohio’s rarest lilies, the amazing Goldenstar (Erythronium rostratum). I was down in western Scioto County yesterday (March 9) with the primary goal of seeing this gorgeous plant. Five days prior, a friend had posted a photo of a blooming Goldenstar from last Sunday, March 5 – incredible! I had never heard of this species being in flower that early. I think my earliest observation of flowering plants – and I’ve made many trips to see it over the years – is March 17, in 2012. Of the nearly 12 different years from which I have flowering photos, most are from the last week of March and the first week of April. Last year, I shot the flowers on April 3. This year is nearly a month advanced from last year.

A Goldenstar nestled in the base of an American Beech (Fagus grandifolia). Beech trees are characteristic of most of the forests where I have seen these lilies. And in Ohio, that is almost exclusively along a stretch of Rocky Fork Creek near the village of Otway, in Scioto County.

Before ascribing this year’s early blooming to climate change, it is important to note that the emergence of many wildflowers seems correlated to soil temperature. This February was essentially snow-free in southern Ohio, and average temperatures were warmer. But just last year the weather was more typically wintry and the Goldenstar bloomed in its usual late March/early April timeframe. And most of my observations, which date back perhaps two decades, are from that period with occasional earlier bloomings during mild late winters. Lucy Braun, who first discovered this species in Ohio (its northernmost locale) in 1963 (but did not see it in flower until the following year) first saw it blooming on April 11. Not too far off its usual flowering time now, but still a bit later than any more modern record I’m aware of.

An especially striking specimen of Goldenstar, with deep purple leaves mottled with green. Unlike the FAR more common and widespread Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum), Goldenstar flowers are more orange, and the tepals (lily-speak for the combination petals/sepals) are held outward on a flat plane, not strongly recurved like the common species.

Fortunately, the Arc of Appalachia managed to protect a large swath of Goldenstar habitat. Their initial acquisition was in 2005, and the preserve has since grown to nearly 200 acres. All of the other plants are found on private lands, including those owned by a large paper company. CLICK HERE for information on the Gladys Riley Golden Star Lily Preserve and how to visit. It goes without saying to be respectful of the plants and their habitat if you do visit.

Be forewarned, Goldenstar typically engages in a mass synchronous blooming that can be surprisingly short-lived. I once saw it in peak bloom – thousands of plants – and three days later took someone back to see the spectacle. All the flowers were already past. So time may be of the essence to catch one of Ohio’s best liliaceous events.

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Tiny bird, big voice: Carolina wren sings a distinctive tune

Tiny bird, big voice: Carolina wren sings a distinctive tune

A Carolina wren investigates orange mock oyster mushrooms/Jim McCormac

Tiny bird, big voice: Carolina wren sings a distinctive tune

March 5, 2023


Jim McCormac

It is only early March, with Old Man Winter still looming large in the rearview mirror. But the birds speak – literally – of spring. Ever-lengthening daylight hours trigger our earliest songbirds to clear those pipes and tune up for the breeding season.

The dawn chorus is becoming ever more conspicuous. Well-named song sparrows contribute their ornate melodies, commencing in the re-dawn gloom. The little striped sparrows, habitués of yards and gardens as well as the wildest habitats, deliver beautifully complex arias ornate in structure.

Northern cardinals – our state bird – sing sweet whistles sure to charm a mate. It’s worth trying to track down the singer. The more somberly toned females sing as well as the gaudy males. Sometimes a pair will duet back and forth.

American robins, our boldest and most robust thrush, are already adding their loud caroling to the chorus. So are comparatively elfin Carolina chickadees, their song a clear sing-song four-parted whistle. White-breasted nuthatches pipe in with a series of stridently nasal yank-yank-yanks. As spring picks up steam, the cast of feathered musicians will diversify, and the soundscape will richen.

Of the early bird singers, perhaps the most conspicuous is the Carolina wren. The male who has laid claim to my yard is busy making himself known to all of late. For a bird that measures only 5½ inches and weighs three-quarters of an ounce, the little skulker has a set of pipes that would put Pavarotti to shame. The song is a loud, clear-whistled teakettle-teakettle-teakettle which can’t be missed. If the songster delivered an early morning message from shrubs under your window, he’d awaken you.

That song isn’t the only tool in the wren’s vocal repertoire. Both sexes produce an astonishingly varied set of calls, in addition to numerous variations of their song. In the bird world, songs are generally sung by males (the cardinal is very much an exception) and they are normally longer, louder and more complex than calls. Songs serve to attract mates, establish territorial boundaries and alert rival males to the where territorial fences are.

Calls are typically much shorter, often quieter and less complex than songs. They serve many purposes, such as keeping mates apprised of the caller’s location, scolding would-be threats, alerting other birds to those threats and notifying mates of food sources.

In the Carolina wren’s case, some calls are nearly as conspicuous as its song. Inveterate busybodies, the wrens investigate everything. If they find something that causes displeasure, like a cat, raccoon or undesirable person, a wren might release a salvo of loudly grating jeer-jeer notes that can practically be heard over a gas-powered leaf blower.

A favorite is what I term the “rattlesnake call.” Issued when the wren is confronted by a threat or annoyance, it is often delivered from deep brush which conceals the scolder. Not many people these days have heard a timber rattlesnake, but I have and the wren’s call sounds eerily similar to me. Creatures that know the buzzing whir created by the snake’s rattles are likely to head the other direction.

If the Carolina wren’s singing entices a mate, there will be further steps in their relationship with the ultimate goal of producing wrenlets. The baby wrens will hatch and grow in a magnificent nest constructed by both parents. It is a bulky grass-lined vegetative dome, usually with a door on the side, and is often adorned with feathers, paper, string, and even snake skins. Got a shedding dog? Brush him outside and let the wrens (and chickadees, titmice and others) harvest the fur. It’ll embellish their nests.

Carolina wrens often pick quirky nest sites. Old shoes, hanging flower baskets, shelves in garages and sheds, mailboxes, old cans and pockets of old coats have all been used. More typically, the nest will be on the ground in dense vegetation, among root masses, in holes in tree stumps and similar hidey-holes.

While winter is likely to rear its icy head again, the birds don’t care. Spring is here, plants are rising from their slumber, insects are stirring, and the wrens and others are filled with spring fever.

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

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