November 2007 Issue
Advocate for Nature
Wildlife expert Jim McCormac educates Ohioans on the natural world so they will act to save it.
The reptile, about 40 inches of serpentine good looks, makes it solitary way through the leaf-littered undergrowth where it blends in almost perfectly. Stealthily decked out, a yellow-brown body marked along its length with dar, irregular splotches, the snake might be searching for a meal.
“Oh, look!” says Jim McCormac, his eyes cast to the right. “A fox snake.”
McCormac is at the head of a small group of wildlife fanciers looking mostly for migrating birds on Kelleys Island. The fox snake is an accidental throw-in on a late-summer day, though what a throw-in. McCormac leaves the boardwalk and picks up the snake without betraying a trace of trepidation.
He can do so because he knows what to expect from this even-tempered, accommodating mini-beast.
“They’re generally docile,” he tells the group.
McCormac, 45, is an avian specialist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife and also president of the Ohio Ornithological Society, an organization he helped start. But it’s clear to those gathered this afternoon that McCormac’s expertise and interests go far beyond birds.
He holds the constrictor where everyone can see its twisting, surprisingly powerful, cold-blooded body wrapping itself around warm human hands. He passes the snake to a fellow nature lover. The senior woman smiles and her eyes sparkle as she holds living, restless snakeskin only slightly away from her body. The snake sticks out a dark tongue as it measures the level of threat in the air. McCormac begins sharing lore about the creature.
Unlike the Lake Erie water snake, which has a nasty disposition, he says, the fox snake isn’t apt to take a piece of skin or even to draw blood as payment for handling. Nor is it very likely to let loose in defense a deposit of foul-smelling musk. There’s nothing anxious to feel, McCormac is insinuating to the handler, only a relaxed and rare thrill.
“The fox snake has one of the tightest distributions among snakes in Ohio,” he says. The species is found in only a few counties along the southwestern Lake Erie shore. In McCormac’s estimation, this snake’s vibrant browns and blacks indicate it is “fresh,” having only recently shed its previous wrapper of skin. Snakes are programmed to do that now and then as they age and grow.
McCormac places the snake where he found it, no worse for the encounter. A few human lives, though, have been enriched.
“If you can show how cool these things are, then people become engaged,” McCormac said a few hours earlier. “If they become engaged, they might take a proprietary ownership. When they do that they’ll say, ‘I don’t want those things wiped out!’ ”
A bit farther along, McCormac bends down to snap off the leaf of a not particularly attention-grabbing plant (considering several cardinal flowers are showing off racy scarlet blooms only a few feet away). He squeezes the leaf and holds it under a nearby nose.
“What do you smell?” he says. “That’s field mint, one of the most aromatic plants we have growing in Ohio.”
A pilgrimage to the Kelleys Island alvar is next up during an afternoon field trip on the Friday after Labor Day. The field day precedes a symposium at Lakeside on the Marblehead peninsula during which McCormac, as he often does, would speak to birding enthusiasts.
Steering a street-legal golf cart north at full jogging speed, McCormac turns toward a passenger and confides that Kelleys has made the cut in his soon-to-be-published book describing the 40 wildest places remaining in Ohio.
The 2,800-acre island, home a few hundred years ago to Erie Indians and rattlesnakes, both long gone, in no way can be considered pristine, but it has its feral attractions. That, on the whole, makes it a standout locale compared with much of the mainland’s chemically inoculated bean fields, indulged lawns, asphalted boulevards and big-box parking lots.
The gouges that show up on Kelleys arose both from humans and nature. The remnant glacial grooves are world famous, the once-productive quarry on the north end no longer active. Both, like the alvar, are products of the hard limestone that made each of Lake Erie’s islands possible as everything else mineral or vegetable was either scraped away by mile-thick ice or washed away when the ice melted 12,000 or so years ago.
McCormac, a botanist by education but a student of holistic nature by inclination, deems the generally unknown alvar worth showing off to the entourage that now follows behind his lead in the cart caravan. Directly under McCormac’s feet near the entrance to a young woodlot he spies a plant that points toward the sky, a single spike sprouting small, delicate white flowers along its 10-inch length.
“That’s too cool,” McCormac says. “I haven’t seen that in years.”
And thus Great Plains ladies tresses, a rather demure member of the orchid family that typically colonizes western prairies, is admired and its picture snapped atop the sweet soil of a Lake Erie island. Not many even in this uncommonly knowledgeable group know that the plant, with its smaller sibling emerging a few feet away, is listed as a threatened species in Ohio.
McCormac, of course, does know.
“It’s on the eastern edge of its range here,” he says as followers stoop to get a best view of an alien life form some had never seen and might never see again.
If somewhere in the state resides untamed animal or uncultivated vegetable that Jim McCormac doesn’t have the goods on, it’s most likely living incognito as a member of the federal witness protection program. (McCormac has been with the Division of Wildlife for three years and for 18 years prior to that he worked for the state’s Division of Natural Areas and Preserves.)
Binoculars dangling from neck, camera stuffed in shirt pocket, McCormac appears to carry field guides — de rigueur for less accomplished wildlife watchers — in his head. He, in fact, penned his own guide not long ago: The popular Birds of Ohio, a collaboration with Gregory Kennedy, was published in 2004.
After having spent his early and lore-building years being taught and teaching himself about the realm of things wild, McCormac’s ongoing mission, he says, has evolved.
“As I’ve gotten older and more into this, I’ve gotten interested in getting more people involved,” he says during some quiet, late-morning minutes before the ferry trip to Kelleys.
McCormac’s passion informs him that if native wild plants and animals are worth knowing, they must be worth keeping. The time for preserving what’s left of nature, moreover, appears to his scientifically trained mind to be growing short. Habitat-swallowing development and global warming, both of which can be traced in whole or in part to human dynamics, threaten life patterns laid down when Lake Erie was filling up with ice water, and before.
“To me, nature is no different from a book,” McCormac says. “If a person is illiterate, he’s not going to be interested in a great book. Literature is a blur to an illiterate person. If a person is illiterate about nature, all he or she will ever see is what I call a wall of green. The parts that make up nature are invisible to them.”
Any possibility for saving what might be in need of saving requires heightened awareness, he suggests, because what goes unrecognized lacks the profile to evoke alarm when threatened. So lies the dilemma when, having neither identities nor personalities among most people, birds are viewed as things with feathers and plants as the green background painted by spring and summer.
Eradicating the prevailing nature deficit, McCormac says, is necessary but not sufficient.
“I don’t want people just to admire the things they see. I want them to act,” he says. “What motivates people is education.”
McCormac’s own active mission starts with dozens of talks a year in Ohio and surrounding states. Revival takes the form of bringing together people for gatherings where they can walk and talk on common ground, can begin to raise money for land purchases on behalf of wildlife, can separate to spread a cohesive message within their communities, can plot strategies to lobby for protective legislation.
The mission is a ways from being accomplished, McCormac acknowledges.
Reformation requires a relentless reformer. An hour or two later on Kelleys Island, surrounded by comrades and colleagues, McCormac is telling stories about the lives of resident plants, pointing out a mating pair of dragonflies while divulging secrets about their sex lives, stooping to check out what might be caterpillar droppings on the trail, exclaiming ruefully about missing a net that would have allowed him to snatch a hackberry butterfly out of thick air.
“Possible Swainson’s thrush on the left,” he announces as he leads a walk on what is known as the North Pond trail.
His voice is lost in the surrounding thicket, a voice in a shrinking wilderness heard this day only by a handful of souls who already understand what it is he’s driving at.