Category Archives: Trees


Honey Bees, Bumblebees and Wannabees!

[Another visit to the NYSDEC preserve at the Five Rivers Environmental Education Center at the end of April proved to be an excellent opportunity for watching pollinating insects at work.

The male catkins on a stately old willow tree at Five Rivers

The male catkins on a stately old willow tree at Five Rivers

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.

How much more pollen can this Honey Bee carry?

How much more pollen can this Honey Bee carry?


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.

The colouration on the thorax of this Bumble Bee was a much darker yellow than it was on what I believe to be the 'other' species present

The colouration on the thorax of this Bumble Bee was a much darker yellow than it was on what I believe to be the ‘other’ species present

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.

And here, a lighter-coloured individual

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!

A Snowberry Clearwing Hawk Moth (its wings are blurred because they are beating so quickly)

A Snowberry Clearwing Hawk Moth (its wings are blurred because they are beating so quickly as it hovers)

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.

Either a Black-tailed Bee Flies (Bombylius major) or a closely related species

Either a Black-tailed Bee Flies (Bombylius major) or a closely related species

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.

[LINKS here to other topics photographed on the same walk / same day, namely Birds, and Amphibians.]


Renewing acquaintance with the excellent Five Rivers NYS DEC wildlife preserve

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.

Pond at Fiver Rivers NYS DEC Preserve - April 2015

Pond at Fiver Rivers NYS DEC Preserve – April 2015

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!

Eastern painted Turtles basking, but what's the one that's pushing in?

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!

A dead oak literally hanging on, from last year. Five Rivers - April 2015

A dead oak leaf,  literally hanging on, from last year. Five Rivers – April 2015

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?

Bud Light!

Bud Light!


Honey Bee on Coltsfoot at Five Rivers - April 2015

Honey Bee on Coltsfoot at Five Rivers – April 2015

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!

A 'Gerris' species of Water Strider - insects that we Brits refer to as 'Pond Skaters'

A ‘Gerris’ species of Water Strider – insects that we Brits refer to as ‘Pond Skaters’. Five Rivers.



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.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet at Five Rivers - April 2015

Ruby-crowned Kinglet at Five Rivers – April 2015


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!

Eddie Wren

A Natural History of North American Trees – Donald Culross Peattie (book review)

How interesting could it be to read a book solely about different tree species?  The answer — for anyone curious about the various facets of nature — is: Intensely!

Book_Peattie_NHNATrees-2This book not only makes clear its author’s encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject but is also written with an eloquence we no longer tend to witness.  In other words, rather than even remotely being dry or boring, this book is both fascinating and an absolute delight to read. [EW]

The e-book ‘Lybrary’ review of A Natural History of North American Trees is no exaggeration and reads as follows:

“‘A volume for a lifetime’ is how The New Yorker described the first of Donald Culross Peatie’s two books about American trees published in the 1950s. In this one-volume edition, modern readers are introduced to one of the best nature writers of the last century. As we read Peattie’s eloquent and entertaining accounts of American trees, we catch glimpses of our country’s history and past daily life that no textbook could ever illuminate so vividly.

“Here you’ll learn about everything from how a species was discovered to the part it played in our country’s history. Pioneers often stabled an animal in the hollow heart of an old sycamore, and the whole family might live there until they could build a log cabin. The tuliptree, the tallest native hardwood, is easier to work than most softwood trees; Daniel Boone carved a sixty-foot canoe from one tree to carry his family from Kentucky into Spanish territory. In the days before the Revolution, the British and the colonists waged an undeclared war over New England’s white pines, which made the best tall masts for fighting ships.

“It’s fascinating to learn about the commercial uses of various woods — for paper, fine furniture, fence posts, matchsticks, house framing, airplane wings, and dozens of other preplastic uses. But we cannot read this book without the occasional lump in our throats. The American elm was still alive when Peattie wrote, but as we read his account today we can see what caused its demise. Audubon’s portrait of a pair of loving passenger pigeons in an American beech is considered by many to be his greatest painting. It certainly touched the poet in Donald Culross Peattie as he depicted the extinction of the passenger pigeon when the beech forest was destroyed.

“A Natural History of North American Trees gives us a picture of life in America from its earliest days to the middle of the last century. The information is always interesting, though often heartbreaking. While Peattie looks for the better side of man’s nature, he reports sorrowfully on the greed and waste that have doomed so much of America’s virgin forest.”


How salmon help keep a huge, Canadian rainforest thriving

Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest is the largest temperate rainforest in the world. This huge and pristine wilderness depends on an unlikely source for its long-term survival – the salmon which spawn in its rivers and creeks….

In the linked video (see below), ecological economist Pavan Sukhdev, The Nature Conservancy’s lead scientist Dr M Sanjayan and camerawoman Sophie Darlington talk about the salmon’s unsung role in fertilising the forest. The bears who feast on the spawning salmon don’t eat on the river – they drag the carcasses far into the forest. The remains of the salmon contain vast quantities of nitrogen that plants need to grow. Eighty percent of the nitrogen in the forest’s trees comes from the salmon. In other words, these ocean dwellers are crucial for the forest’s long-term survival.

Watch the video, from the BBC, at:

WWP Group Walk – ‘Identifying Trees in Winter’ – Buffalo Audubon Society

John Sly (Photo copyright 2014, Gerry McIntyre. All rights reserved)

Identifying winter trees?  I often have difficulty identifying them in summer!  It would appear that I’m not the only one, either, because several members of our WWP group came out in today’s modestly below-freezing temperatures and had an enjoyable and instructive walk with John Sly, one of Buffalo Audubon Society’s team of knowledgeable volunteers.  Indeed, John was able to pass on so much information that it was a challenge to keep up.


Beaver Meadow Arboretum

Beaver Meadow Arboretum

Deciduous twigs opposite or alternate?  If opposite each other then “MAD Horses” are responsible! (Maple, Ash, Dogwood or Horse Chestnut – a great acronym that should prove easy to remember.)

White Pine

White Pine

Compound leaves or simple?  Well yes, this was a question about summer trees, not winter, but as we were apparently not willing to leave any leaf unturned, the questions were still answered.

Display of leaves at the Arboretum

Display of leaves at the Arboretum

Pines with needles in bundles?  If in twos, it could be Red Pine or Jack Pine (though they are very different) but if the needles are in fives it is the remarkable Eastern White Pine – a tree whose timber caused ructions inthe build up to the Revolutionary War.

This wasn’t all, of course.  There were still bark, buds and seeds to consider, not to mention the habitats in which each species found its favoured niche.

Prior to starting the walk, we had the opportunity to briefly look at at John’s own display collection of over 80 species of leaves, together with various seeds, pine cones, twigs and so on.  Interestingly, when I asked him, he added that the leaves would keep their green colouration and remain usable for display for about 15 years.


Gerry, balancing flash exposure with background snow

Gerry, balancing flash exposure with background snow







Key little tidbits came out during this ‘classroom’ session, such as the indentations in some maple leaves being ‘U’ shaped, which indicated sUgar maple, and others being V shaped. John also passed around several of his older tree-identification books — mostly just printed with monochrome illustrations, unlike today’s brightly-coloured volumes — but showed us the detail in the typically larger illustrations, an aspect which spoke for itself.

Detailed explanation

Detailed explanations

During the first two-thirds of our walk, snow fell quite heavily, and this meant that those of us with DSLR cameras which were not weather-proof had to be cautious about the water getting in.  And some of us (meaning me!) had forgotten to to pack our waterproof compact camera, too, so several photo opportunities were lost!

What started out, perhaps, as just a good reason to get outside and have a winter walk, turned out to be extremely interesting and I,

And then the sun came out!for one, will look for other opportunities to go out on John’s various guided walks because — to use a well-known phrase — he’s a man who has clearly forgotten more about trees than I will likely ever know. And just to end the walk on a high note, the sun came out and graced us with its presence on our way back to the BAS buildings.

Finally, my thanks to Gerry McIntyre, for sharing some of his photos with us in this blog.

Eddie Wren

Some Winning Images from International Photo Competitions

These are three, 6-minute slideshows from international photo competitions hosted by the BBC.  The final one has nothing to do with wildlife photography, so it is not quite in context with this blog, but either way I hope you enjoy them and gain inspiration:

Wildlife wonders – creatures up close:

Glorious greenery – winning garden [and wildflower] images:

Top travel photos from around the world: