See also: ‘Here Be Dragons and Damsels‘ (same location & same day)
See also: ‘Here Be Dragons and Damsels‘ (same location & same day)
Yes, back to the NYSDEC’s excellent Five Rivers Environmental Education Center preserve yet again, but this is something I anticipate writing frequently in this blog now that we are living once more in the Hudson Valley!
[Also see ‘Other Photos from Five Rivers’ – same location & day]
For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of spring is seeing the reappearance of odonates (a.k.a. ‘odes’)– the dragonflies and damselflies – and even though they are only just getting started, today’s short hike (May 14) was no disappointment.
Because dragonflies are predators and are more robust than – say – butterflies, they tend to have less human admirers, but that’s a pity because they really are remarkable and often spectacular. Damselflies are predators too, but are typically much smaller and more delicate.
They are also very ancient creatures and fossils of very large dragonfly ancestors are found from 325 million years ago. Indeed, in those days, due to there being more oxygen in the atmosphere, dragonflies used to grow much bigger, with wingspans up to 750mm / 30 inches across.
None-the-less, in recent years far more people have started taking a lot of interest, particularly in dragonflies – often birders who are finding it to be an additional and equally enjoyable use for their binoculars. (Close-focusing binoculars are by far the best for getting a good look at timid dragonflies and butterflies without frightening them away.)
One of the challenges with getting interested in odonates is that some of them are very difficult to tell apart. Recognition of various species can literally require catching them and taking a very close look with a hand lens. The good thing is that they can be caught and handled then safely released with no harm done, but in my case I have more than enough to carry in the form of camera gear without adding a long-handled net to the burden, so I will apologise now for not always being able to give a definitive identification for all of my ‘ode’ photographs.
As the photos in this blog show, this hike turned up a beautiful dragonfly (just one species, I believe) and at least two species of damselflies. (I should add that in both types of creature it is common for males and females to look very different, but that is not always the case.)
Apart from the positioning of the eyes (see the above photo caption) another good way to tell dragonflies from damselflies is how they hold their wings when they are not flying. If you look at the top photo on this page, of a dragonfly, you can see that it rests with its wings straight out at right-angles to the body. Now look at the damselfly photos, above and below this paragraph and you can see that their wings are held along the body, not sticking out to the sides.
One thing they do all have in common is a need for water for the reproductive phase of their lives, so any water (other than the sea) can be a good location to see ‘odes’, whether it is a large pond, a small pond, a fast stream, a slow stream or even a tiny ‘seep’.
If you decide to try photographing them, be aware that they have huge eyes for a reason.
They have near-360-degree vision and because many birds will eat them they react instantly to fast movement, so approach very, very slowly. Some species are easier to photograph, though, because they will habitually come back to the same twig or blade of grass as a perch, so watch where they land then move closer – at which point they will probably fly away – then move closer again and keep your fingers crossed that they do come back to the same place. Patience will pay dividends!
If you would like to look at books on this enjoyable subject, I wholeheartedly recommend (for North America):
[Also see ‘Other Photos from Five Rivers’ – same location & day]
A last-minute change of plans took us back to our old stamping ground in Western New York State at the weekend, so I grabbed a couple of hours to re-visit the Tillman Road Wildlife Management Area, at Clarence. The WMA is described by the NYS DEC as “a wet lowland with an emergent marsh, open water, grassy fields, a deciduous swamp and hardwood forest.”
Tillman’s greatest appeal to me, over the last 12-or-so years that I have been a regular visitor, is that one never knows quite what will be found on any visit and ‘drawing a blank’ is rare.
This time, I turned up two new insect species I had never before seen or photographed: a male Carolina Saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea Carolina), and what – to the best of my very limited ability with moths – I believe to be a White Spring moth (Lomographa vestaliata). The latter sat motionless on a leaf, to the extent that I wrongly presumed that it would be some sort of ‘bird dropping moth’ but the former was on high-speed patrol along the margin of a pond and settled only briefly, each time, before doing another lap of its territory.
I’ve been very careful in identifying the dragonfly because it is very similar, in both appearance and range, to the Red Saddlebags (T. onusta) but I’m fairly confident I’ve got it right… However, as is always the case on my blogs, if anyone recognizes that I’ve made a mistake please do add a comment below to put me right, and I will correct any error.
The various species of ‘saddlebags’ dragonflies get their name from the dark patches on the inner section of their wings, and when seen – usually in silhouette – from below, this creates an outline that looks like what the name says.
Up where we were, close to Lake Ontario, the Carolina is fairly close to the northern limit of its range, which is over the border in southern Ontario province. Even in this part of New York State, it is further north than its usual breeding range.
My other insect of the day was a rather worn-looking Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atlanta) which – to my surprise – was laying eggs in low, rough vegetation where I could see no trace of any of the future caterpillars’ necessary food plants. Does a first-brood adult lay eggs randomly around an area in the hope that at least some of their offspring will find suitable food after the plants all grow? Or was this one operating by smell (chemical sensing) and by that means actually knew the right places to leave eggs?
As for the other photographs, well I’m always a sucker for violets and I’m not going to walk past a ‘posing’ Tree Swallow, either!
On the same walk I wrote about in ‘Honey Bees, Bumble Bees and Wannabees‘, I grabbed a few photos of birds that conveniuently appeared nearby. I don’t think there’s anything that needs adding in terms of a ‘story’ here, so this is just a small selection of the resultant images:
All of this needs to be considered in light of the fact that there are now major threats facing the survival of bees, worldwide, and heaven help mankind if bees are decimated to the point that crop pollination is badly affected.
From what I saw, there were apparently two species of bumble bee and one species of honey bee present at the various blossoming willow trees on the Five Rivers’ Beaver Tree Trail but it turns out that individual bumble bee species are very difficult to identify from one another. I learned this after buying an excellent book some months ago, under the title of Bumble Bees of North America (Princeton University Press). In the book, it describes the need to study leg joints and other tiny parts of the anatomy, but as I have enough to do in terms of photographing wildlife and I’m also extremely disinclined to kill something I’ve just enjoyed photographing, merely so I could study its leg joints, this is not something I would do.
Having said that, I did take the liberty of sending a couple of my photographs via Twitter to the Xerces Society, (@xerces_society) an organisation that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat, to see if they could help me with identification. Note that the name is not spelled ‘Xerxes’ and they have nothing to do with 300 Spartan warriors! The Xerces people kindly referred me to a group called Bumble Bee Watch (@BumbleBeeWatch) and I’m hoping they might be able to help enlighten me.
Apart from the bees that were present there were also a few Snowberry Clearwing Hawk Moths (Hemaris diffinis). As their name shows, these rather dramatic and perfectly harmless insects have clear, see-through wings, not the coloured wings that we normally expect of moths. The reason is that their body colouration has been designed by evolution to mimic bumble bees! This gives these otherwise defenceless moths a degree of protection from predators that might otherwise eat them.
On previous visits to Five Rivers – and, indeed, on the same Beaver Tree Trail – I have previously photographed a very close cousin of the remarkable Snowberry Clearwing, the Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) and for both of these species the final surprise for anyone watching them is that they feed by hovering above their chosen flowers, while feeding on the nectar through a very long proboscis. Think of it as like drinking through the equivalent of a ten-foot drinking straw!
Anyway, this day’s Snowberry Clearwings were a new species for me, but they weren’t the only one. In among the bees and the clearwing moths were also a few bombylid flies. According to my books, they looked most like the species known as Black-tailed Bee Flies (Bombylius major) but as I didn’t actually see any black tails in among them I must assume that they might have been a different but closely related species. They, too, usually hover over flowers while feeding although that’s not the case in the photograph below. However, the larvae of the many species of bee fly either prey upon or parasitise the larvae of other insects, including bees.
Also feeding from the male catkins on the wonderful but very elderly willow tree that had triggered this insect feeding frenzy were Mourning Cloak and various white butterflies.
All in all, I spent well over an hour under that willow tree, frankly delighted by the amazing display of its flowers and by the wealth of insect life it had attracted. The air, quite literally, was abuzz with their sounds and as the pesky mosquitos have not yet appeared for the summer, it was uninterrupted enjoyment.
Want to see a wonderful wildlife spectacle in spring? Go and stand under a mature, flowering willow tree! There’s probably one not too far from you, particularly on the edge of water courses or other wetlands.
Vosburgh Swamp is a Wildlife Management Area administered by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation [NY DEC] and the entrance is literally within stone-throwing distance of the right/west bank of the River Hudson, just north of Athens, NY.
I first found out about Vosburgh from the 1981 book, ‘Where to Find Birds in New York State’, by Susan Roney Drennan and published by the Syracuse University Press. The book had been in print for over 20 years when I bought a copy at exactly half of its then-$25 cover charge, but despite it being ‘long in the tooth’ I got a great bargain!
In the book, the location is referred to as Vosburgh’s Marsh and was described back then as being “entirely on private land” and that “there [was] really no public access to the area.” Clearly, the change of ownership since that time is just one more thing for which we should thank the NY DEC. (See my recent post about Five Rivers, for example.)
It also states that the marsh/swamp “is an especially good place to bird in spring, when one can see and hear Great Blue, Green and Black-crowned Night Herons, Least and American Bitterns, a large variety of duck species, several rail species, Marsh Wrens, and marsh-breeding sparrow species.”
Perhaps surprisingly, virtually none of the bird species listed above were evident but I would certainly anticipate seeing and photographing at least some of them within the next few weeks.
One migrant that was very visible during my latest visit, though, was the Palm Warbler, always an enjoyable bird to watch as it returns north each year.
This was my first visit back to the swamp since all of the ice and snow melted in March and early April, and now, of course, spring is starting to show itself, especially in the form of tree buds.
A few Rue Anemones were in flower, some with their green leaves still unfurling despite the flowers being wide open. A good clue to their identity is the three-lobed tip of each leaf.
During the walk, I saw my first Spring Azure butterfly of the year (but not close enough or static enough to get a shot of). I did, however, manage to get a shot of a tiny, fast-flying micro moth that was considerate enough to pause for just a few seconds, within range of my lens.
As much for fun and a challenge as for the potential images, I also enjoy photographing the insects that Americans call water striders and the British call pond skaters. The ones I found at Vosburgh were members of the Gerris genus (of which there are about 20 species in North America). The one in question had what appeared to be an olive- or green-coloured thorax but beyond that fact I have no idea of its precise identification. (Anyone who can put me right, please submit a comment, and the same request applies to the above photo of the micro moth, too.)
Water striders, being insects, have three pairs of legs although from a distance it looks like just two pairs. The front pair are kept tucked up, beside the head, almost praying mantis like, and as this pose suggests they are used to grab and hold the smaller insects that form the striders’ prey. The middle pair of legs are used to ‘row’ the strider along and the hind pair are used to steer. The speed at which they can catapult themselves forwards and change direction has to be seen to be believed.
Also present in some of my Water Strider photographs were what appeared to be dark grey springtails (Collembola sp.), which are hexapods, not insects.
Photographically-speaking, I am also getting more used to the Canon equipment I’ve recently added to my armoury: A 7D Mk2 camera together with the newly redesigned 100mm-400mm zoom lens and a 180mm macro lens, all of which are performing brilliantly.
To end my afternoon at Vosburgh, I couldn’t resist a shot of a rather pleasing reflection of trees.
Back in 2012, while living in Albany, I was able to visit the Five Rivers EEC/preserve several times and came to like it greatly, so now that we are back in the Capital District I’ll be renewing my acquaintance with this delightful location.
One of Five Rivers’ greatest advantages is its broad mix of environments – from grasslands and scrub, to pine and deciduous woodlands, the seeps and streams, and – last but by no means least – a variety of ponds.
My first photo, here, is simply a snapshot that I took with my cell phone to use on Twitter, and it’s a view of one of a cluster of the smaller ponds – a great place for Belted Kingfishers and Green Heron.
At the above pond, a large Snapping Turtle was basking on the sloping bank until a couple of people nearby spooked it and it launched itself back into the water with a tremendous splash. Plenty of Eastern Painted Turtles were out basking, as well, but a gaudy interloper in the next photo looks to me like an entirely different species (unless it is just in mating colours). It’s front legs had yellow stripes on a blackish background. It eventually gave up trying to get onto the ‘sun deck’ and slipped back into the water, so I never got a look at its upper side. Can anyone help me identify it for certain, please? My books aren’t helping!
Moving on from amphibians to reptiles, the only snake I saw was a tiny, 7-inch-long juvenile Garter Snake, and he was too far under a thorny bush for me to want to go crawling after his portrait!
For those with botanical interests, all was visibly starting to stir. There were still a few dead leaves left on some branches but there were also plenty buds in various stages of development and – for me – the first flowers of spring: the delightful Coltsfoot. (Yes, I know that sadly this is one of many introduced species, here in North America but for giving us the first bright glow of spring, I still can’t resist it.)
So who can resist or ignore the sights and sounds of spring?
On slower sections of the streams and in among dead cattails on the ponds, Water Striders were busy whizzing around, looking for other insects trapped in the surface layer. These fascinating creatures of the genus Gerris use their short front legs to grab prey, their middle pair of legs to ‘row’ at great speed, and their back legs to steer. If you want a lesson in patience and frustration, try getting a sharp, close-up photo of them!
The last photo I’m posting here is of another creature that often will not stop still long enough to have its photograph taken, but this time it’s the Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) a tiny (4¼-inch) bird which, along with its North American cousin the Golden-crowned Kinglet, is closely related to the very similar Firecrests and Goldcrests in Europe, in the same genus.
Here the ‘ruby crown’ is deliberately hidden away by drabber feathers on the top of its head, but when it has cause to display, just watch the dramatic change!
As for Five Rivers, I’ll be back… as often as I can!