Category Archives: Wildlife – Nature – Natural History

wildlife, nature and natural history topics

Acadia Birding Festival 2015 – Day 1

The Acadia Birding Festival is Maine’s premiere bird watching festival and was established in 1998.

Group at Indian Point Blagden Preserve
Group at Indian Point Blagden Preserve

This year, the Festival is from 28-31 May, plus two post-festival trips on 1-2 June, and over these days it visits 27 different birding locations.

Male Hairy Woodpecker feeding young at nest hole
Male Hairy Woodpecker feeding young at nest hole

For ourselves, the main Day One trip was to Indian Point Blagden Preserve – a path through mixed woodland leading down to the beach at the N.W. corner of Mount Desert Island and the Acadia National Park.

Red-eyed Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo

Our list of warblers seen included: Ovenbird, American Redstart, Northern Parula, and Black-and-White, Magnolia, Blackburnian, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Blue & Black-throated Green Warblers.

Black-throated Green Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler

Other species seen included Common Loon, immature Bald Eagles, Hairy Woodpecker (at nest), Red-eyed Vireo, Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, American Robin and Dark-eyed Junco.

Magnolia Warbler
Magnolia Warbler

Species heard but not seen included: Mourning Dove, Eastern-wood Pewee, Red-breasted Nuthatch and Winter Wren.

Oven Bird
Oven Bird

And the guides for this event?  Well, there’s a whole truck-load of experts – too many to mention by name – but they are headed up by two internationally-known names:  Ken Kaufman, inter alia the author of several excellent books about birds, and David la Puma, Director of the Cape May Bird Observatory in New Jersey.

Harbor Seal, just off shore
Harbor Seal, just off shore

But for now, I’m just looking forward to seeing what tomorrow brings!

Eddie

 

Other Photos from Five Rivers

Common Yellowthroat yelling "Witchety, witchety" at me.
Common Yellowthroat yelling “Witchety, witchety” at me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Northern Cardinal
Northern Cardinal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularia) in breeding plumage
Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularia) in breeding plumage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spotted Sandpiper in flight, showing wing and tail markings
Spotted Sandpiper in flight, showing wing and tail markings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No, I still can't resist getting shots of Tree Swallows!
No, I still can’t resist getting shots of Tree Swallows!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eastern Painted Turtle in the water
Eastern Painted Turtle in the water

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eastern Chipmunk
Eastern Chipmunk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well-camouflaged grasshopper on wood mulch
Well-camouflaged grasshopper on wood mulch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A geometrid moth larva, looping.
A geometrid moth larva, looping.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spring Azure butterfly on the invasive plant, Garlic Mustard
Spring Azure butterfly on the invasive plant, Garlic Mustard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spring Azure butterfly from above while feeding
Spring Azure butterfly from above while feeding

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wild Geranium
Wild Geranium

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I believe this is Corn Speedwell (Veronica arvensis)
I believe this is Corn Speedwell (Veronica arvensis)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

See also: ‘Here Be Dragons and Damsels‘ (same location & same day)

New Dragonfly & New Moth at Tillman Road

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.”

A male Carolina Saddlebags dragonfly
A male Carolina Saddlebags dragonfly

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.

Carolina Saddlebags, rear view to show wing detail
Carolina Saddlebags, rear view to show wing detail

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 believe this to be a White Spring moth
I believe this to be a White Spring moth

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.

A Red Admiral butterfly, laying an egg
A Red Admiral butterfly, laying an egg

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.

Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia)
Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia)

 

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?

Tree Swallow
Tree Swallow

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!

Nature at Olana

It could be argued that if ever architecture looked out-of-place for its location it is at Olana, in the Hudson Valley, New York State, on the east bank of the river, on the opposite side to the town of Catskill.  It’s origins, however, are of significant artistic interest.

Frederic Edwin Curch's Persian-style mansion at Olana
Frederic Edwin Church’s Persian-style mansion at Olana

Olana is a Persian-inspired mansion that was built for Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), an American landscape painter born in Hartford, Connecticut. He was a central figure in the Hudson River School of American landscape painters, and perhaps best known for painting large panoramic landscapes, often depicting mountains, waterfalls, and sunsets… Church’s paintings emphasise light and a romantic respect for natural detail…  [For more detail, go to Wikipedia.]

Rue Anemone
Rue Anemone

I paid two visits to the grounds (which is free on weekdays but costs just a few dollars for admission on weekends and public holidays), once in late April and again early in May.  As I was short of time on both of these occasions I limited my walks to a lap of the man-made lake     although there are several other walks available to visitors.

Hepatica
Hepatica

On both of my visits only a couple of spring ephemerals were present: Rue Anemones and Hepatica, although the latter was past it’s best on my May walk.

As for the lake itself, I have been here a few times but this was the first time I was able to see that there are some Koi carp present (either that or some very large goldfish, if that’s not the same thing!).  The other non-native that was present, but fortunately in very small quantities was the invasive reed Phragmites.

Koi Carp in the lake at Olana
Koi Carp in the lake at Olana

Much more interesting were the male Common Green Darner dragonflies that were patrolling sections of the shoreline, waiting for the arrival of females.

Several birds were present, though I didn’t get good photos of as many as I usually manage.

The ones not photographed included:

  • Northern Flicker
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Common Grackle
  • Blue Jay
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Palm Warbler
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • Song Sparrow
A male Baltimore Oriole
A male Baltimore Oriole

I certainly expected to see more species of migrating warblers passing through but             disappointingly that didn’t happen.

The two species that did surrender to my lens were the      ubiquitous America Robin and the spectacular Baltimore Oriole.

My bird ‘stalking’ usually gets more prolific results!

Last but by no means least, the humble Inch Worm!
Corrected caption:  NOT an Inch Worm but likely a Noctuid moth caterpillar!

While I was there, though, what I took to be an ‘inch worm’ dangling in the sunshine caught my eye.  Most Americans undoubtedly have seen inch worms but after I got home from this walk I looked it up and was staggered to find the claim that there are, in fact, over 1400 different species of inch worm in North America!  To check further, I sent the above photo to someone vastly more knowledgeable than I about entomology and their response was that this was not even an inch worm – a fact     given away by the number of pairs of ‘sucker’ legs!  Instead, this is likely to be the caterpillar of a ‘Noctuid’ species of moth, and there are hundreds of different species of those, too!  My thanks to ‘Ask An Entomologist’ – on Twitter @BugQuestions – for this information.

For those people interested in Mr. Church, his home and his artwork, guided tours of the house are available on certain days. For details go to: www.olana.org/plan-your-visit/

Over the delightfully-named Rip Van Winkle Bridge in the town of Catskill, one can also visit the home of Thomas Cole – a famous English-born artist – which is now a National Historic Site. More info at: www.thomascole.org/visit-main/

 

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.]

Eddie

Dastardly Deeds on the Delaware River?

THE MYSTERY OF THE DEPOSIT DEPOSIT!

A few days ago, I met up with my Swedish fly fishing buddy Peter Bjorkman, at Deposit, New York, for a day’s fly fishing on the West Branch of the Delaware River.  On this occasion, though, I had left my own rods at home and took my cameras, instead.

After a morning fruitlessly ‘swinging a streamer’, Peter switched to one of my own favourite techniques, that of ‘Czech nymphing’, and started to have success.

The 'scene of the crime' - The West Branch of the Delaware River, at Deposit, NY. All of the bodies were in the bottom-right corner of the photo!
The ‘scene of the crime’ – The West Branch of the Delaware River, at Deposit, NY. All of the bodies were in the bottom-right corner of the photo!

In the meanwhile, I was moving along the bank and occasionally in the shallow edges of the river, and while doing so I spotted the waterlogged body of what appeared to be a cormorant, floating among grasses.

The neck and skull ow what I believe to be a cormorant were bare bone but, as shown here, the body and feathers were just below the surface
The neck and skull ow what I believe to be a cormorant were bare bone but, as shown here, the body and feathers were just below the surface

Having gone closer, to take a look, I then found an equally sodden duck’s wing nearby.  And then some relatively dry, breast feathers from a lighter coloured bird — possibly also a duck.

The green 'speculum' on the dead duck's wing
The green ‘speculum’ on the dead duck’s wing

All of this was in an area no more than 12 feet in length, and it seemed too much to be coincidence.

Feathers, apparently from a third 'victim'
Feathers, apparently from a third ‘victim’

I changed my search and started looking for signs of a perpetrator, and almost immediately I got what I presumed was a result.  On a rock a few feet out into the water was some scat (about 1½ inches in length).

“That’s not otter,” I thought (though I’m only aware of what Eurasian otter scat looks like, not their American cousins, and I merely presumed it would be similar).

Scat on a prominent rock - typical behaviour for riverside hunters
Scat on a prominent rock – typical behaviour for riverside hunters

“Maybe it’s mink,” seemed like a reasonable conclusion, so I took photographs of all the bits of the various birds and of the scat, so that I could check my animal tracking books when back home.

My sleuthing didn’t pay off though, because according to my books the scat looked absolutely nothing like that of otters or mink, or of any other riverside predator I could think of.  If anything, it looked most like that of the humble musk rat — to my knowledge not a creature that’s likely to be inclined or able to kill and eat large birds.

If any reader happens to belong to that elite group of people who can recognise creatures by their after-dinner deposits, could you kindly let me know what the scat might have belonged to and thereby hopefully solve the question as to whether this was likely to have been murder most ‘fowl’ (sorry!) or simply a coincidental gathering of body parts.

Peter with a beautiful, very light coloured Brown Trout (which was immediately returned to the water, unharmed - 'catch-and-release' fishing)
Peter with a beautiful, very light coloured Brown Trout (which was immediately returned to the water, unharmed – ‘catch-and-release’ fishing)

And as for my friend Peter, he just kept on fishing, not at all interested in whether or not I had discovered the crime of the century. (And I can’t say that I blame him really!)    {;-)

Presque Isle at Erie, PA, for the Warbler Migration – 11 May 2014

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In the excellent National Geographic book, ‘Guide to Birding Hot Spots of the United States‘, authors Mel White and Paul Lehman write:

Audubon's "Festival of Birds" weekend at Presque Isle.
Audubon’s “Festival of Birds” weekend at Presque Isle.

When it comes to variety and rarity, Pennsylvania’s birdiest place is a 7-mile-long spit of land that extends into Lake Erie from the city of Erie. Though it’s made of sand, Presque Isle State Park seems to have magnetic qualities for migrant birds, both regularly occurring species and long-distance wanderers. More than 320 species have been found in this relatively miniscule sliver of beach, ponds, marsh and woods. Though many records are of once-in-a-lifetime vagrants, the odds are better here than anywhere else in the state that something unusual will turn up….

Only six of our WWNP group made the 2-hour trip from Buffalo, NY, to Presque Isle on 11th May (although, to be fair, it was Mothers’ Day!), which was nice in terms of our small group size at the park but a pity for those who missed it.

Two-thirds of the WWNP ‘A-team’!

The day we went was also the final day of the Audubon Society’s ‘Festival of Birds’ weekend, and to be honest I was astonished at how few people — relatively speaking — appeared to be at that event, too, although I suspect they may have limited the numbers on purpose…. No bad thing!

A bright Yellow Warbler, surprisingly well camouflaged amongst the opening buds.  Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren. All rights reserved.
A bright Yellow Warbler, surprisingly well camouflaged amongst the opening buds. (The rust-coloured streaking on the breast shows this to be a male, supported by the fact that it is singing.) Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren. All rights reserved.

Of course, now that spring has eventually arrived (and not before time!) the trees buds are starting to open and are doing two things to nature watchers and photographers, namely making the spring ephemeral flowers wilt and disappear, and making it harder to see — and particularly to photograph – small warblers! The result is that we saw several more species than we were necessarily able to catch on camera.

A lightly-marked Yellow warbler, indicating that it is a female. (Males have red or rust-coloured streaking on the breast.)  Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren. All rights reserved.
A lightly-marked Yellow warbler, indicating that it is a female. (Males have red or rust-coloured streaking on the breast.) Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren. All rights reserved.

The other delightful aspect, however, came from the fact that just as Julie Andrews’ hills were apparently alive with the sound of music, so the woodlands of Presque Isle were absolutely brimming with the sound of bird song. This fact, along with unbroken sunshine and temperatures in the high seventies, meant the day simply couldn’t have been better.

Another Yellow Warbler, glowing in the full sunshine.  Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren.  All rights reserved.
Another Yellow Warbler, glowing in the full sunshine. Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren. All rights reserved.

According to bird books, the song of the Yellow Warbler sounds like: “Sweet, sweet, sweet;  I’m so sweet!” but until I’ve heard a bird a few times for myself, I’m rarely able to relate to such chorus-lines from books and I tend to make up my own word-strings to help me remember various bird calls, so — for me — the Yellow Warbler sings: “Two, two, three;  listen to me!”

Birders and bird photographers wait patiently (or impatiently!) for months, for the 3-4 weeks of the main warbler migration period each spring but the problem is that, once it’s here, it hurtles past so quickly.

Great Horned Owl chick/owlet, absolutely motionless, watching us watching it!  Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren.  All rights reserved.
Great Horned Owl chick/owlet, absolutely motionless, watching us watching it! Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren. All rights reserved.

Early in the day, Andrea introduced us to a friend of hers, Brian Berchtold, who is a Presque Isle State Park ambassador/ volunteer and wildlife photographer. Amongst other things, Brian was kind enough to take us to see a Great Horned Owl’s nest, from which one of the two owlets could be seen peeping over the edge of the broken tree trunk and watching us watching it. One of the parent birds remained nearby but with not only branches but the aforementioned opening buds constantly thwarting our view, I don’t know whether any of the group got good photos of the mature bird.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker searching for food.  Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren.  All rights reserved.
A male Red-bellied Woodpecker searching for food. Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren. All rights reserved.

For my own sins, I was also engrossed with a new lens that had arrived via UPS less than 36 hours previously: a Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM, to give it its grand title (and which was used for all the photos on pages one and two of this post). Sadly, my current camera doesn’t have ‘back-button focussing’ which I rather suspect made me a bit slower with the warblers than might otherwise have been the case. Never mind; that can be rectified in due course.

Ever spectacular, a male Northern Cardinal.  Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren.  All rights reserved.
Ever spectacular, a male Northern Cardinal. Photo copyright 2014, Eddie Wren. All rights reserved.

The other problem I met with was that as a lifelong birder I found myself sometimes watching new or less-common species through binoculars for too long and by the time I got around to attempting a photograph, they’d gone! {:-)

Highlights of the day included excellent views of several relatively common but still spectacular birds, such as Baltimore Orioles, Yellow Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Palm Warblers, Black and White Warblers, American Redstart, Red-bellied Woodpeckers and one of nature’s finest — Northern Cardinals.

One of several important signs that some people saw fit to ignore!
One of several important signs that some people saw fit to ignore!

If there was a down-side to the day, it was the fact that at the eastern tip of the Presque Isle peninsula I saw several people blatantly ignoring signs telling everyone to keep out of sensitive nesting areas — one of the few situations in life that can make me wish I was still a police officer!

Continued on next page….