Summer Cats

Nature will not be admired by proxy.

~Winston Churchill

Seems as though my schedule (and the heat) have kept me from some of my usual yard patrols, so I finally went out the other day for a walk-about to see what I could see. It started with my eye catching something out of place on a hickory sapling near the gate…a bright green spot at the edge of a leaf…

Caterpillar head

Caterpillar head peaking out from behind a leaf (click photos to enlarge)

When I walked over, I could see by the distinctive triangle-shaped head, framed by a pair of yellow stripes, that it was an old acquaintance – the larva of a walnut sphinx moth, Amorpha juglandis.

Walnut sphinx larva

Walnut sphinx larva feeding on hickory leaf

I did a short blog post on this cool species a couple of years ago when I found out it has an unusual ability…it is one of the few caterpillars that can make sounds! Researchers discovered it can make a high-pitched whistle by quickly expelling air out of its eighth pair of spiracles (the small breathing tube holes along the sides of caterpillars). Studies have shown that the sound may be enough to scare off potential bird predators.

Walnut sphinx larva 1

The walnut sphinx larva is distinctive in its appearance and abilities

Even though I probably disturbed this little guy while taking its picture (they usually feed on the underside of leaves so I had to flip him over for a full profile pic), I heard no whistle. I can’t decide whether their sound is outside my range of hearing (like many warblers) or these caterpillars just realize I am a long-time fan of their kind and present no threat. After photographing this species, I decided to walk around for a few minutes to see what else I might find.

Walnut caterpillars

Walnut caterpillars

Just a few feet away on another hickory sapling, I found an aggregation of strange, hairy larvae that turned out to be walnut caterpillars, Datana integerrima. What made me notice was a couple of leaves that had been heavily chewed. As I got closer, I could see something that looked like my barber had glued some of my trimmings all over a couple of black worms. When I touched the leaf, they quickly arched into a c-shape, a classic defense pose for members of this genus of caterpillars.

Walnut caterpillars 1

The larvae had just molted

I flipped the leaf to get a better look and found that they had all just molted. This is typical for this species, which is known to move down out of the trees where they are feeding in masses in order to molt. Walnut caterpillars generally have at least two generations per year in the south and can periodically be serious defoliators of localized populations of black walnut, pecans, and various species of hickory. I have never seen them cause significant problems in this area as they seem to be controlled fairly well by natural predators and parasites.

So, in just a few minutes time just outside my door, within a span of less than thirty feet, I was rewarded with glimpses of two fascinating species that share my habitat. It is always good to be reminded that to really enjoy nature, you have to be out in it.

 

 

 

 

 

That Time of Year Again – Bees Beware

To every thing there is a season…

~Ecclesiastes

On several of my wanderings these past few days, I have heard noticeable buzzing sounds that indicate an acceleration and flyby of a large winged insect. I recognize these sounds to be from a fascinating group, the robber flies, family Asilidae. I remembered posting about them last year and when I looked it up, it was almost exactly the same week last summer when I started seeing these amazing aerial predators in the yard.

robber fly with honey bee looking from side

Robber fly with honey bee prey (click photos to enlarge)

And, once again, the first one I saw with a prey item last week had managed to capture a honey bee. Their preference for bees is one reason this particular species is also called the false bee-killer (although not really so false).

robber fly with honey bee

Close up of a killer

A closer look reveals some of the adaptations that make robber flies so efficient at catching their prey, which, by the way, they almost always do while on the wing. They have huge eyes for spotting flying insects; large wings powered by strong muscles in the humped thorax; and long spiky legs that help them maintain a grip on something once they have grabbed it in mid-air.

robber fly with honey bee looking from above

Face to face with a fierce predator

This one did what they all do after catching something – flew to a perch to start consuming its prey shortly after capture. Robber flies pierce and inject their victims with toxins that immobilize the prey and begin to liquefy them. They then fly to a nearby perch and begin to imbibe on the internal soup of their quarry.

This time, however, the meal was interrupted. What had drawn me to this particular perched fly was an intense buzzing sound, not made by this fly, but by a male robber fly hovering nearby. The male had the distinctive white patch at the tail tip I had seen last summer that allowed me to identify them as Promachus bastardii, which Bug Guide calls the Big Robber. Turns out, this loud, stationary buzzing is a prelude to mating. And, sure enough, the male waited for just the right moment and then jumped on the larger, feeding female.

mating robber flies

Mating robber flies

The act didn’t last long as I heard another buzzing sound and saw another male hovering nearby…the lady has two suitors. The first male buzzed off and the other male followed, so perhaps a territorial duel ensued elsewhere in the yard.

female resuming her meal

Female continued feeding

The female, meanwhile, continued feeding. That is, until I accidentally brushed her perch while trying to lean in closer for a better view. She immediately buzzed by my head, carrying her unfinished lunch to a less crowded perch. She will eventually lay eggs at the base of  plant or in soft soil or rotting wood. The larvae are rarely seen, but resemble odd worm-like creatures living in soil and soft wood where they consume organic matter and start their predatory career by capturing soft-bodied prey around them. Larvae pupate in the soil and emerge next year, or perhaps a year or more later. I guess I will need to be on the lookout for some egg-laying behavior and see if I can’t find a larva. In the meantime, I’ll listen for that buzzing sound and see what’s for dinner.

 

Mini-frogs

The frog forgets that he was once a tadpole.

~Anonymous

It’s been a busy couple of weeks and I must apologize as I have been a blog-slacker I’m afraid. Lots of chores, plus the hot and humid weather has kept me inside more than usual. It turns out, unlike me, there are some things that actually do quite well in this sort of weather. The past few weeks have been wet and warm, perfect conditions for the many frogs here in the woods. And one place in the yard has been particularly popular.

frog pond

Mini-pond awaiting repair (click photos to enlarge)

One of the two water gardens has a leak (or more than one) in the liner. I cleaned it out this spring but decided to put off attempting a repair or replacement of the liner until cooler weather next Fall. The heavy rains have partially filled this pool, making an ideal breeding ground for several species of amphibians, especially Cope’s gray tree frogs, Hyla chrysoscelis. I have come home late on several rainy nights and their calls have been deafening. And where there are calling frogs, there are eventually eggs, tadpoles, and, finally, tiny frogs, or froglets.

Tadpole transforming

Cope’s gray tree frog emerging from the pool

I started seeing these mini-frogs a couple of weeks ago, and their numbers have steadily increased, with plenty of tadpoles still active in the pool. When I look over the edge of the pool, I usually see 4 or 5 froglets sitting around the edge, most with part of their tadpole tail still present.

froglet with tail bud

The tadpole tail slowly disappears after the frog leaves the water

As a tadpole changes into a frog, the cells in the tadpole tail undergo programmed cell death, called apoptosis (from a Greek word meaning “falling off”, as in leaves from a tree). This process is stimulated by thyroid hormones in the blood. This type of cell death differs from necrosis, where cells swell and burst, often due to injury, and spill their contents on neighboring cells causing an inflammatory response. Cells that undergo apoptosis die in a “neat” fashion, by shrinking and condensing, and are eventually consumed by other cells, thus recycling the organic components of the dead cell.

transformed froglet

These mini-frogs could perch nicely on your thumbnail, with plenty of room to spare

It is amazing that all this intricate cellular processing is going on in these tiny creatures as they emerge and begin their terrestrial existence. Studies have shown that newly transformed frogs will stay close to the ground in vegetation, but will often migrate many feet away from their natal pool within a week or so. I am already finding froglets 30 feet or more away the pool. If even a small percentage of these guys survive, it will be a very noisy next summer on rainy nights here in the woods. Looking forward to it…

Here is a gallery of baby pics from the mini-frogs around the pool…

Copes gray treefrog froglet 2

copes gray treefrog froglet  on fern

copes gray treefrog froglet 4

copes gray treefrog froglet  on fern 1

copes gray treefrog froglet  looking at camera

 

 

Creating a Sense of Wonder at Pocosin Arts

If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later year…the alienation from the sources of our strength.

~Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

Downton Columbia 1

Downtown Columbia at sunrise  (Pocosin Arts lodge on left, studios across the street) (click photos to enlarge)

I spent a few days last week helping others learn to observe and visually record the natural world in a workshop sponsored by Pocosin Arts in Columbia, North Carolina. This is the fourth time I have taught a class at Pocosin Arts, and each time has been a real treat. The staff are so accommodating and the facility is wonderful, and now includes a beautiful lodge. A small group gathered to explore some of the areas I love in this region of rich natural resources, and to learn how to better observe nature, and record it in a journal. My friend and neighbor, Jane Eckenrode, took the lead in helping students gain confidence in creating memorable sketches of nature as we spent a few days observing the features and creatures of this wild area, including Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. My goal, as always, was to help people learn to see the world through new eyes, and learn to appreciate some of the tremendous natural diversity that surrounds us.

sunrise on boardwalk at PLNWR VC

Sunrise view form the boardwalk on the Scuppernong River at Pocosin Lakes NWR

After some initial hands-on observations of natural history mysteries and tips on sketching, we spent the next few days out looking for wildlife.

White-tailed deer at PLNWR

White-tailed deer at Pocosin Lakes NWR

Our primary mammals were white-tailed deer and several of the region’s most famous critters, black bears. We also saw some animal signs that intrigued us, including some huge bear tracks (we made a couple of plaster of paris casts)…

Turtle tracks

Turtle tracks crossing a sandy road

…and some initially puzzling trackways.

Great egrets

Great egrets at Mattamuskeet

Birds were a constant companion at both refuges, with the impoundment at the entrance to Mattamuskeet providing great views of flocks of waders (including great and snowy egrets, little blue herons, great blue herons, white and glossy ibis).

green heron

Green heron along boardwalk in Columbia

pileated woodpecker juvenile

Juvenile pileated woodpecker along boardwalk

The interpretive boardwalk behind the visitor center at Pocosin Lakes NWR in Columbia proved to be one of the best places to see and hear birds. I had not spent much time on this boardwalk in the past, but will now try to walk through any time I am in the area as it is rich in plant and animal life and affords close up views of a variety of species.

Dragonfy on grass stalk

Dragonflies ruled the skies last week

The most common wildlife we saw were the small ones that many people rarely notice, and, foremost among the legion of invertebrates, were the dragonflies.

Golden-winged Skimmer

Golden-winged skimmer

Golden-winged skimmers seemed to be perched on every grass stalk at the observation platform at Mattamuskeet. They had easy pickings as there were what appeared to be millions of midges emerging from the lake as a tasty morning snack.

Eastern Pondhawk male

Eastern pondhawk, male

Eastern Pondhawk female

Eastern pondhawk, female

Other species we observed included Eastern pondhawks, great blue skimmers, slaty skimmers, and blue dashers (dragonflies have some interesting names as well as behaviors).

Argiope and shadow

Argiope spider and its shadow

We even found eco-art in some strange places including a beautiful spider web and shadow lit by the rising sun on the side of a pit toilet at Lake Mattamuskeet. You just never know what you might find if you pay attention (or where you might find it!).

After our four days together, we all had a better sense of place about this area, and a better appreciation for how special it is. I know I will be back to Pocosin Arts soon…it is a great place to relax and take in the scenery, the culture, and the wildlife of one of my favorite places on the planet, the wilds of Eastern North Carolina. And the name is perfect because the natural art found in these wetlands is food for both the eyes and the soul. If you find yourself traveling toward the Outer Banks this summer, stop and check them out. Better yet, take a class at this unique facility and expand your vision of the world around you. Hope to see you there…

Some natural beauty along the boardwalk in Columbia…

swamp leatherflower

Swamp leatherflower, a type of wild clematis

Painted turtle and reflection

Painted turtle and reflection

bumblebee on pickerelweed

Bumblebee on pickerelweed flower

Marsh mallow buds

Marsh mallow (Hibiscus) buds

swamp rose

Swamp rose

Royal fern b and w

Royal fern patterns

Fly eyes

Fly eye art

bald cypress trunk b and w

Bald cypress trunk

Yellowstone in Feathers

 ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
~Emily Dickinson

It has been a busy week, but I finally had a chance to wrap up some images and thoughts about my recent Yellowstone trip. Like every trip out there, this one helped me see the world as it should be, at least the wild parts do. Being there is an experience of feeling free – free from the drumbeat of the daily news (and it has been a particularly steady drumbeat this political season); free to feel the joy of sharing a place I love; and free to feel that there is hope in this world. I usually don’t take quite as many images when I have other folks with me as I spend more time trying to get them to places to see the things they want to see. But, I still managed some shots, especially of birds. Plus, I had a couple of days by myself before the others arrived and decided to spend some of it just watching some of the smaller wildlife the park has to offer.

Great Horned Owl nest with three young

Great horned owl chicks in nest in Lamar Canyon (click photos to enlarge)

It seemed it was the season of the owls this summer, especially great horned owls. I had seen reports online of a nest high on a rock face in Lamar Canyon and was delighted to see it on my first evening in the park. The three chicks were quite visible in their seemingly precarious perch across the Lamar River. I checked on them every day I was in the area, and they all apparently fledged by the time we left the park.

Great Horned Owl chick under eave

Great horned owl fledgling in Mammoth

I also checked in on another nest that is usually in a tree in the Fort Yellowstone area of Mammoth. It was in the same conifer as last year and the  two chicks fledged within a few days. Much to my surprise, one of the chicks ended up about 200 feet from the nest up under the eaves of a three story building. I guess it must have some flight ability as I can’t imagine it “branching” and climbing up the side of that stone building.

Great Horned Owl adult

Great horned owl adult sitting near chick

Just a few feet away was one of the adults, calmly sleeping under the roof overhang. The next day both birds were gone, but we found the chick in a nearby cottonwood tree.

Great horned owl with chick in nest in Beartooths

Great horned owl nest in Beartooths

The day we went up the Beartooth Highway, I checked a nest I had found last year along the road. Sure enough, another active great horned owl nest. These chicks seemed a bit further behind developmentally than their counterparts from the lower elevations in the park.

Great Gray owl fledgling

Great gray owl chick

I was fortunate to once again tag along with my friend, Dan Hartman, as he checked a great gray owl nest he has been observing outside the park. Great grays are the largest owl in North America, and it is always a pleasure to spend time with these magnificent birds in their forest home. When we walked in, I spotted a chick that had just fledged and had climbed a leaner to perch above the ground (a much safer place to be in these woods).

Great Gray Owl chick

Great gray owl chick high in branches near nest

We soon spotted another fledgling high in the branches just beyond the nest. A third, smaller chick, remained in the nest.

Great Gray Owl female

Female great gray owl

The adult female was nearby, watching over the chicks. A northern goshawk nest was not far away, and we soon witnessed an encounter between an agitated hawk and the female owl. The hawk came screaming through the trees as the owl took flight, striking the owl from behind. The owl went down to the ground. But, other than missing a few feathers, the owl seemed fine, and soon continued to hunt while the hawk disappeared into the forest. Soon, the male owl showed up and we witnessed a simultaneous feeding of the two fledged chicks by the two adults.

Great Gray chick with prey 3

Great gray owl chick with food brought by male owl

I was near the first owl chick, which was closer to the ground than its sibling. The male owl flew in, clung to the side of the tree trunk next to the chick, and transferred a small mammal to its begging beak. It was a mouthful (looks like a northern pocket gopher, a favorite prey of great grays). The chick struggled with it, and in the dim light, I managed a lot of blurred images and a few decent ones.

Great Gray chick with prey

Going down…

The chick finally managed to swallow the food after a lot of gulping and head shaking.

Raven nest

Raven nest on cliff

Several other nests were spotted during our visit, including the highly visible raven nest that is usually on the cliff wall in the area known as the Golden Gate, just outside Mammoth.

Sandhill cranes at sunset

Sandhill cranes at sunset

 We saw several pair of sandhill cranes with their young (called colts), feeding in wet meadows along various waterways in the park. It is always a thrill to see, and especially hear, these majestic birds.
Male and female green-winged teal

Female and male green-winged teal

Green-winged teal male

The male is distinguished by a cinnamon head with a beautiful green eye mask

One afternoon I was fortunate to spend about 30 minutes alone with a pair pf green-winged teal just behind Soda Butte. We were hidden from the road by the formations of this old thermal feature, and it was a pleasure to just sit and watch this pair as they fed in a side channel of Soda Butte Creek.
Ruddy duck male

Male ruddy duck with his Carolina blue bill

Eared grebe

Eared grebe

Floating Island Lake provided good views this year of several species of water birds, including some ruddy ducks and eared grebes that were busy courting and fussing.

Harlequin duck

Lone harlequin duck at LeHardy Rapids

American dipper on rock

American dipper bobbing on a rock before diving in…

American Dipper feeding

…looking for dinner underwater

LeHardy Rapids once again provided some good bird watching with a single harlequin duck out on the usual rock, and a very active American dipper feeding in the rushing water ( I never tire of watching these unique birds and their amazing feeding style).
Clark's nutcracker with bison scat pile

Clark’s nutcracker picking through some bison scat for who knows what

Cliff swallow nests

Cliff swallow nests under roof overhang of pit toilet

Trumpeter swan on Soda Butte Creek

Trumpeter swan along Soda Butte Creek

Trumpeter swan with leg band

It wasn’t until I looked at the image on my laptop that I saw the swan has a large leg band

Mountain Bluebird male 1

Mountain bluebird

 While most people are more interested in the charismatic mega-fauna of Yellowstone, I find some of the smaller forms of wildlife, especially those with feathers, to be just as interesting and fun to watch. It is a treat to be able to spend time with these feathered beauties each time I visit this incredible wonderland.

 

Here is the bird checklist for this year’s trip:

Canada Goose, Trumpeter Swan, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Mallard,   Cinnamon Teal,  Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Lesser Scaup, Harlequin Duck, Bufflehead,  Barrow’s Goldeneye, Common Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Wild Turkey, Eared Grebe, Western Grebe, American White Pelican,  Osprey, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Peregrine Falcon, American Coot, Sandhill Crane,  Killdeer, American Avocet, Spotted Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, California Gull, Great Horned Owl, Great Gray Owl, White-throated Swift, Northern Flicker, Gray Jay, Stellar’s Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, American Magpie, American Crow, Common Raven, Tree Swallow, Violet-green Swallow, Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Mountain Chickadee, American Dipper, Mountain Bluebird, American Robin,  European Starling, American Pipit,  Yellow-rumped (aka Audubon’s) Warbler, Green-tailed Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Red-winged Blackbird, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Brewer’s Blackbird, Western Meadowlark, Brown-headed Cowbird, Purple Finch, Cassin’s Finch, Pine Siskin

 

We Need Places Like Yellowstone

Contemplating the flow of life and change through living things, we make new discoveries about ourselves.

~Ansel Adams

I just returned from another wonderful trip to Yellowstone National Park. It is still beautiful, still magical, still a place you must reckon with and not take lightly. It is as it should be, wild.

Wolf watchers at Slough Creek

Wolf watchers at Slough Creek (click photos to enlarge)

At times, it may not seem that way, especially in the some of the more popular spots like Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Even my favorite part of the park that includes Little America and Lamar Valley, can be crowded with wildlife seekers, especially where there are wolves, as is the case this year at Slough Creek.

Lake pano at sunset

Shoreline of Yellowstone Lake at sunset

But, if you try, you can find a peaceful spot to just watch and listen as the natural world goes on about its business, seemingly uninterested by our comings and goings.

Sunset on Soda Butte Creek

Sunset sky along Soda Butte Creek

You can pause and look at the sky, listen to water flowing by, and think about your place in this world.

Grand Prismatic

Grand Prismatic Spring

Or marvel at the life and beauty in extreme environments, and ponder whether these conditions may exist elsewhere in our universe.

27352349580_d75a6c6562_b1

Bison cow and calf

You can spend time enjoying peaceful scenes like herds of bison with their newborn calves.

Coyote pups and parent playing

Coyote with playful pups at den site

Or watch the family life of predators like these coyote pups tugging at their parent’s tail or a group of nine wolf pups tussling in a grassy meadow. Scenes of predator and prey, sky and water, life and death, scenes of beauty, moments of peace, time to reflect…that is some of what an experience in a place like Yellowstone provides. It is something we need in times like these, what we all need, to help us see the good in the world, and in ourselves.

More peaceful scenes from Yellowstone, June, 2016…

Grand Geyser in eruption

Grand Geyser in eruption

Grizzly in Round Prairie

Grizzly in Round Prairie

Littel T on ridge at sunset

Black wolf of the Lamar Canyon pack near bison carcass

Mud bubble at Fountain Paint Pots

Mud pot bubble

Pronghorn doe

Pronghorn doe in Little America

Reflections at Grand Prismatic overflow

Reflections at Grand Prismatic Spring

Moose in Soda Butte Creek

Moose in Soda Butte Creek

Sugar Bowl

Sugar Bowl, a type of clematis

Nule Deer in mud in Lamar

Mule deer doe feeding in muddy spot in Lamar Valley

Baby Uinta Ground Squirrels

A group of baby Uinta Ground Squirrels

Bison along the Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley

Bison along the Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley

Trout Lake

Trout Lake

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me

And I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be

I go and lie down where the wood drake

Rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

Who do not tax their lives with forethought

Of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

Waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

~Wendell Berry

 

Mountain Birding

To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter; to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring — these are some of the rewards of the simple life.

~John Burroughs

A few short days after the Ohio birding trip, I joined a museum-sponsored trip to our mountains to look for birds. I had gone as an assistant on this trip 4 years ago, but was a participant this time (Melissa was helping out and driving the museum bus). This trip, Mountain Birding, fills every spring, with many people going multiple times over the years. It is greatly enhanced by the presence of one or two of the museum’s ornithologists and their extraordinary knowledge of the birds of our state and their birding skills in the field.

Bobolink pasture

Bobolink meadow (click photos to enlarge)

As on my previous trip, the first stop was a meadow not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Several years ago, a flock of bobolinks was documented using this field. The farmer was approached and a deal struck to have him delay mowing the pasture until the birds had finished nesting. That deal has proven favorable to the birds and they have been a regular fixture here since. As we walked up to view the field below, we could see several males giving chase to one of the duller-colored females.

Bobolink

Male bobolink surveying his domain

The males like to sit atop prominent perches, singing, and on the lookout for females and rival males. Male bobolinks are boldly patterned in black and white with a half-tone straw-colored head during the breeding season. The Cornell web site suggests some observers describe the males as a bird wearing a tuxedo, but backwards. By fall, the males will molt to more closely resemble the females. These birds nest in the tall grasses, much like their cousins, the red-winged blackbirds, that were also abundant here.

Bobolink in flihgt

He takes flight to chase a female

We watched them for well over a half hour as they chased, sang, and hid in the grasses. An Eastern meadowlark with a nearby nest provided another observation challenge during this time, as she brought a large clump of food (a grub perhaps?) to her nestlings.

warbler neck

Warbler neck is a common affliction in our mountains

The next morning we were up on the Blue Ridge Parkway, near Boone, on a trail around Trout Lake, scanning the trees for warblers. Warbler neck is much more of a hazard in our mountains while warbler watching than it was on our Ohio birding trip. I carried my 500mm lens, but wasn’t expecting much that could compete with the success of the Ohio outing (with a smaller lens). At day’s end, I was pleasantly surprised at a few of the portraits…

Black-thrpoated blue warbler

Black-throated blue warbler

Chestnut-sided warbler singing in NC 1

Chestnut-sided warbler singing

American redtstart female on nest

Female American redstart forming nest

We soon spotted an American redstart building its nest in a rhododendron next to the road. The museum ornithologists recorded the location as there is little known about this species nesting habits in our state. The nest looked to be about 10 feet high in an upright fork of the thick vegetation of a shrub, making a photo very challenging.

Wild geranium

Wild geranium

We moved at a slow pace, taking time to listen and look for birds. That also gave me time to look around and appreciate some of the other beauties along the trails.

mating ladybugs

Mating ladybug beetles

moth in pileated feeding area

A moth looks like a hole in some exposed wood

On a short walk after lunch, we discovered a nest of an Eastern phoebe under a foot bridge (one of their favorite nesting locations is on the supports of bridges and roof beams of outdoor buildings). Walking through a rhododendron thicket proved a nice bit of post-lunch exercise, but not too productive for birds. But, there was a snag that had been riddled by pileated woodpeckers digging for insects. As I looked over the damage, I noticed what looked like an unusual hole in the exposed wood. It turned out to be the dark shape of a moth – one of the bark mimic zale moths I think.

solitary sandpiper

Solitary sandpiper

cedar waxwing 1

Cedar waxwing eating aphids

That afternoon, we drove down to the picturesque area known as Valle Crucis, and walked along a trail at their community park. The name of the town is Latin for “Vale of the Cross,” a reference to a valley in the area where three streams converge to form a shape similar to a cross. The park provides a variety of habitats from grasses, to woodland edges, to a marshy pool , all situated along the Watauga River. Highlights included plenty of red-winged blackbirds, tree and barn swallows, a yellow warbler, cedar waxwings, a lone solitary sandpiper (I know, redundant), and nests of a Baltimore oriole and a least flycatcher.

sunset on BR Parkway

Sunset on the Parkway

sunset on BR Parkway pano

A view looking east at sunset

After dinner, we drove back up on the Parkway to enjoy a splendid sunset.

Rich Mountaoin Gap

Rich Mountain Gap

Our final morning proved to be my favorite. This is my third visit to the area around Elk Knob State Park, and it is proving to be a place I want to return to again and again. The peaks here are geologically different than most in the rest of the state, being composed of amphibolite. The unique geology weathers to a more basic soil which gives the region an unusual blend of plant communities. But, the birds quickly grabbed our attention when we got off the bus at Rich Mountain Gap.

American goldfinch

American goldfinch

American goldfinches were flitting back and forth across the gravel road, perching in prominent spots for a nice photo op.

Song sparrow with food

Song sparrow taking food to its nestlings

A snog sparrow ferried food to a hidden nest in the grasses not far from the road.

Song sparrow with food close up

Beak-full of bugs for hungry mouths

On one trip, her beak was crammed with what looked like a family of true bug nymphs plucked from a nearby leaf.

Raven

Raven fly-by

A group of three ravens winged their way by us, causing everyone to look up to observe their distinctive flight patterns and croaks.

Pine siskin singing

Pine siskin singing

A lone pine siskin made an appearance in a nearby buckeye tree, and was soon joined by a species we all sought…

Golden-winged warbler

The elusive golden-winged warbler

This area around Elk Knob is one of the last strongholds in our state for a tiny beauty, the golden-winged warbler. These diminutive ground-nesters have suffered one of the steepest declines of any songbird in the last 50 years. This has prompted researchers and conservationists to increase efforts to learn more about this species and develop plans for reversing this declining population trend.

Golden-winged warbler singing

Golden-winged warbler singing with a field sparrow apparently listening

This male gave our group plenty of great looks, including some singing, before disappearing into the thickets.

Large-flowered trillium

Large-flowered trillium

Bluets

A sea of bluets

Our lunch break was at nearby Elk Knob State Park and included time to appreciate some of the beautiful wild flowers in bloom.

Veery

Veery

We also got great views of a veery and a rose-breasted grosbeak in the picnic area.

Blue-hesded vireo at nest

Blue-headed vireo at its nest

My favorite find at Elk Knob was a nest under construction by a pair of blue-headed vireos at the start of the backpackers trail. We heard one singing, and then followed it as it flew into an overhanging sapling adjacent to the trail head. I quickly discovered it was building a nest, a most unusual-looking one. In between visits by the pair of birds we crept in and got a closer look. The nest included  a substantial amount of discarded tissue paper. Hopefully, it won’t disintegrate in the rains this week.

Blue-hesded vireo

Pair of blue-headed vireos working on their tp nest

Formerly part of a complex of birds known as the solitary vireo, it has since been split into three separate species, with blue-headed vireos being the one found in the East. The group walked on down the trail and I hung around next to a nearby tree trunk to photograph the birds as they went back and forth bringing in new nest material, mostly lichens, a few bark strips, and some unidentifiable fluff. With each visit, the bird would place the item onto the nest, pull and tug to secure it, and often push down with its body to help form the cup. As with most vireos, the nest was suspended from a fork in a branch, and probably attached with spider web silk.

Blue-hesded vireo 2

Sizing me up

After a couple of minutes, one of the birds came close to investigate me, and, after it left, I moved on, not wanting to alarm them. From a distance, I could see them busily continuing their work after I left. Here’s hoping their proximity to the trail causes them no undue disturbance in the coming weeks. It was a great trip, with lots of sightings, good people, and new knowledge. I can see why it is so popular.

Yellow Fellows

In his plumes dwells the gold of the sun, in his voice its brightness and good cheer. We have not to seek him in the depths of the forest, the haunt of nearly all his congeners, he comes to us and makes his home near ours.

~Frank M. Chapman, 1907

Yellow warbler along boardwalk

Yellow warbler male (click photos to enlarge)

The most common warbler we encountered on our recent birding trip to Ohio was the yellow warbler, Setophaga petechia. These warblers are the most widely distributed members of their family and are bold in both color and behavior. Both sexes are bright yellow with males having rich rust-colored streaking on the breast, and often a hint of that color on their head.

yellow warbler preening

Yellow warbler preening as we sit nearby in our car

yellow warbler afterg preening

The look after a satisfying preen

On our first afternoon on the refuge, we saw these birds chasing each other, feeding, singing, and preening.  They often allowed a close approach, so we were able to get some nice photos within a short time.

Yellow warbler male singing

Male yellow warbler singing

Yellow warbler male singing 1

We heard their song everywhere we went on the refuge and at Magee Marsh

We heard singing males throughout the afternoon at Ottawa NWR and all day the next day at Magee Marsh. It was the start of their brief, but active, breeding season, and they were not wasting any time. The high-pitched song is a distinctive series of whistled notes ending in a rising slur. It is often described as sounding like sweet sweet sweet I’m so sweet. In keeping with the lack of shyness around humans, we often found males singing within a few feet of us.

Pair of yellow warblers

A pair of yellow warblers right next to the boardwalk at Magee Marsh

On our last morning in Magee Marsh, we had a pair of yellow warblers flitting about right next to us. The male had just chased another male away, and was following the female, in between grabbing a small insect snack. The female then flew into a shrub a few feet away…

Yellow warbler female on nest

Female on nest

…and right into her nest! We maneuvered around on the boardwalk and found one tiny spot where we could get a clear view through the vegetation and see the nest. Yellow warblers make their nests in a vertical fork of a small tree or shrub, usually within ten feet of the ground. This particular one was about 5 feet from the edge of the boardwalk and at eye level. For the next few minutes, we watched as the female made trip after trip, bringing in material, and forming the nest to her exacting standards.

Yellow warbler with nest material plant fibers

She brought in several plant fibers on multiple trips

Yellow warbler with nest material hair

This time she brought a hair of some sort

Yellow warbler formingnest with wings

Forming the nest by pressing her wings against the sides

yellow warbler turning in nest

Turning and pressing her body to help shape the nest

Yellow warbler female forming nest

She periodically pressed deep into the nest, with only her bill and tail remaining visible

The nest starts as a cup of grasses and bark strips. Plant fibers, spider webs, and plant down adorn the outside. The nest is then lined with animal hair, plant fibers, and down. I’m not sure what the whitish material is on the outside of the nest, although there were cottonwood trees in the area which produce copious amounts of white fluff associated with their seeds. The nests of yellow warblers are often plagued by brown-headed cowbirds laying their eggs in them. If the foreign egg is detected, the yellow warbler often builds a new nest directly on top of the parasitized one, resulting in a nest that can have up to several layers.

Yellow warbler male on nest

The male takes a brief turn at forming the nest

The birds seemed totally uninterested in us, but we decided to move on after a few minutes of observation. It is always a treat to see a nest under construction, and we wished them well in their efforts.

yellow warbler near nest

Yellow warblers seem to bring happiness to those lucky enough to observe them

On a birding trip to our mountains this week, my ornithologist friend said that seeing yellow warblers always makes him happy. There is something about their trusting behavior and beautiful color that makes them special. The artist, Marci Moses, once said… Yellow is the perceived color of sunshine. It is associated with joy, happiness, intellect, and energy. Perhaps this brightly-colored warbler is on to something.

 

Walking with Warblers

From those tall hemlocks proceeds a very fine insect-like warble, and occasionally I see a spray tremble, or catch the flit of a wing. I watch and watch till my head grows dizzy and my neck is in danger of permanent displacement, and still do not get a good view.

~John Burroughs, on trying to observe warblers in the woods, from In the Hemlocks, 1910

Most of us can relate to what naturalist John Burroughs had to say about trying to observe warblers. Birders typically hear them before seeing them, then strain for a glimpse, often looking straight up into the tall trees, trying to catch enough of a view of the flitting creature to confirm an identity. It can lead to the malady known as warbler neck, and can be frustrating . But, when it pays off, it can pay off big, as these tiny songsters are among our most beautiful birds.

Black-throated blue warbler male 2

Black-throated blue warbler (click photos to enlarge)

Spring is warbler time as they migrate from their wintering areas to their breeding grounds dressed in their finest. While we do have several species that nest here in the Piedmont, many others are passing through, on their way to higher elevations or latitudes to breed and raise their young. But, there is a place where warblers are incredibly abundant during spring migration, or at least that is what I had read. That place is the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area on the south shore of Lake Erie.

Trail entrance Magee Marsh

West entrance to Magee Marsh (click photos to enlarge)

It is a 2000+ acre state wildlife management area, adjacent to Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, and is home to the famed Magee Marsh boardwalk, which regularly appears on lists of the top birding spots in America. It is also home to The Biggest Week in American Birding festival for ten days each May, around the peak of the spring migration.

Magee Marsh boardwalk 1

Birders line the boardwalk at Magee Marsh

The boardwalk is just under one mile in length, but is the destination for thousands of birders each spring due to the amazing number and variety of birds that tend to pile up here, waiting for the right conditions to fly across Lake Erie as they migrate north. I was a bit hesitant to visit such a potentially crowded area, but really wanted to see this spectacle, so we decided to arrive on the last day of the festival and spend a day or two birding, hoping the crowds might thin. When I made my lodging reservations, it was apparent we would not have had any choice anyway, as every lodging I could find in the area (it is in rural farmland about 30 minutes from Toledo) was booked through the festival. Birders are obviously good for business. Arriving on Sunday afternoon, we avoided the crowds, and spent a couple of productive hours on Wildlife Drive at nearby Ottawa NWR. The next morning, we arrived at Magee Marsh a little after sunrise, with only a dozen or so cars as company. This is a good start, I thought. It turns out, weather this year had delayed the migration a bit, and the weather last Monday (chilly, with winds out of the north) is the perfect set up for keeping the birds in place, and low, making them much more visible. It would be one of those days to remember…

Missed shot

I have way too many shots like this, or with just twigs where the warbler had been

Based on some tips about birding the area I read online, I was carrying my 300mm telephoto, a flash, and my tripod onto the boardwalk. After walking about 50 feet and already seeing several warblers, and viewing the conditions (thick vegetation and close proximity to birds), I carried the tripod back to the car. This is a place for quick photos, maneuverability, and reasonable focal lengths (plus, the tripod is difficult to use when the boardwalk is crowded). Birds were everywhere! And close! As we made our way down the boardwalk, more and more birders started to arrive. But, in spite of the developing crowds (and this is the day AFTER the festival), you could always just walk a few feet and have a bird to yourself. It turned out to be an incredible day, a tiring day, but a really rewarding one. The hype is for real…this is an incredible place to bird. Below are some portraits of some of the 22 species of warblers we observed at Magee Marsh in our day and a half of birding. In addition to these 18 that are represented in photos, we had 4 others – yellow-rumped warbler, prothonotary warbler, worm-eating warbler (heard), and ovenbird (heard). The official checklist for the ten day festival period this year had 34 species of warblers viewed by the throngs.

Tennessee warbler

Tennessee warbler

Canada warbler

Canada warbler, one of the toughest to get a good look at, as they tended to stay hidden in the low shrubs

Wilson's warbler

Wilson’s warbler, another skulker that was rarely far from a thick tangle of twigs

Chestnut-sided warbler 2

Chestnut-sided warbler

Northern parula warbler male 1

Northern parula warbler

Magnolia warbler 1

Magnolia warbler

Bay-breasted warbler

Bay-breasted warbler – it took me most of the day to finally get a clear shot

Black-throated green warbler

Black-throated green warbler

Blackburnian warbler

Blackburnian warbler

Northern waterthrush

Northern waterthrush

common yellowthroat

Common yellowthroat male

Black-and-white warbler

Black-and-white warbler

Blackpoll warbler

Blackpoll warbler

 

Palm warbler

Palm warbler

American redstart male

American redstart

Black-throated blue warbler male

Black-throated blue warbler

Yellow warbler male

Yellow warbler

Cape May warbler 1

Cape May warbler

There were a few species we saw that I never managed to get a clear photo of, but, as you can see, it was an amazing day for warbler portraits. The other thing I loved was having the time to watch these beautiful birds do their thing, and to be close enough to observe some of the details of what they were doing. I spent about ten minutes with this Cape May warbler, watching it probe among the flowers on just one branch of this shrub (some type of gooseberry or currant??).

Cape May warbler 26

Probing for…?

Cape May warbler

Warblers are great arboreal acrobats

It almost looked as if it was drinking nectar from the flowers, but, after looking at zoomed-in images of this behavior, I think it was meticulously gleaning aphids from the the petioles and flowers.

Northern parula foraging

Northern parula doing a head-stand while foraging

While we were there on Monday, most of the birds were busy foraging in the thick vegetation bordering the boardwalk. On calm days, or when there are southerly winds, many of the birds will be higher in the trees feeding.

Cape May warbler foraging on tree trunk 1

Cape May foraging on tree trunk with a midge taking flight just above the bird

A couple of species (Cape May and Chestnut-sided warblers, in particular), often moved along tree trunks, picking off midges and other tiny insects from the furrows of the bark.

Black-and-white warbler 2

Black-and-white warbler forages much like a nuthatch

Of course, that is the primary feeding strategy of a species like the black-and-white warbler, although it seems to spend more time spinning around branches than it does creeping up trunks.

Chestnut-sided warbler with fish fly

Chestnut-sided warbler with a huge meal

While most of the warblers were feeding on small insects, like midges, one lucky guy managed to snag a beak-full. A chestnut-sided male grabbed a huge winged critter (I think it is a male fishfly), and after struggling to subdue it, dropping it, and recapturing it on the wing…

chesnut-sided warbler gulping down meal

Going, going, …

managed to gulp it down.

American redstart male singing

American redstart singing

The other prime activity seemed to be singing. And what a treat, especially for a guy that is losing some of his high frequency hearing, to be so close to so many species of songsters.

Chestnut-sided warbler singing

Chestnut-sided warbler singing

Northern parula warbler male singing

Northern parula belting it out

It was a fulfilling day of low level warbler-watching. After spending over 12 hours on the boardwalk, we were both pretty tired. I even had my first-ever photo-blisters from gripping and maneuvering a heavy camera rig all day. That night, as predicted, the winds shifted, creating favorable conditions for a flight over the lake (most warblers migrate at night). Many of the birds must have taken advantage of the winds, as the next morning was noticeably different. It was still great, but the birds tended to be higher up in the trees, and, they just were not quite as abundant. Experienced birders recommend spending a few days in the area for this very reason, since conditions can vary considerably from day to day with changes in weather.

Blackpoll warbler 1

The blackpoll warbler is a

When you stop to appreciate what these tiny birds have gone through to make it this far, it is humbling…the blackpoll warbler, for instance, winters in Brazil and migrates almost 5000 miles to its nesting grounds in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska. During the fall migration, this species takes a more easterly route that includes flying out over the Atlantic Ocean for distances up to 2100 miles non-stop (a flight that has been recorded to take up to 88 hours). The phenomenon of bird migration is one of the greatest spectacles of the natural world, and Magee Marsh is certainly one of the most remarkable places to witness it in spring. I’m glad we were fortunate, on our first visit, to experience it at its best.

Frog Wars

The voice of the bullfrog, who calls, according to the boys, “jug-o’-rum, jug-o’-rum, pull the plug, pull the plug”…

John Burroughs, 1905

On our birding trip to Ohio last week, I confirmed that I can still hear many of the warbler songs, but only if they are really close. But there is a “song” that I can hear very well, the love song of the American bullfrog, Lithobates catesbeianus. So, on Tuesday morning, while throngs of people on the boardwalk at Magee Marsh were looking up at colorful warblers, I stopped to look down into the water to see where that familiar jug-o’-rum call was coming from.

Male bullfrog

Male bullfrog in a prime location along the boardwalk at Magee Marsh (click photos to enlarge)

I spotted the caller sitting out in the open water a few feet from the boardwalk. Then, off to the side, another male called. They called back and forth a few times as I maneuvered trying to find a space through the thick shrubs that gave me a clear photo of the bulging yellow throat of the calling male. The first male suddenly skipped across the water surface toward the other male – FROG FIGHT!!

bullfrog battle 2

Bullfrog males tangle in a territorial battle

The frog I had been watching went about ten feet across the water and slammed into another male frog coming from the other direction…and the battle was on. Male bullfrogs establish and defend territories in suitable breeding habitat along a shoreline, hoping to attract females. Territories vary in size, but may be roughly 5 to 15 feet across, depending on the quality of the habitat.

bullfrog battle 3

Trying to get the upper leg in a wrestling match

Even the hard core birders around me were now watching this duel as the frogs were kicking up quite a bit of water as they tried to wrestle for position and an advantage.

bullfrog battle 1

Hard to tell who is winning

After some leg flailing, the frogs locked arms and began a marathon shoving match. I’m not sure about the rues in frog wrestling, but I think the goal is to dunk your opponent until he cries Uncle, and makes a hasty retreat out of your prime spot. My original frog seemed to have one primary strategy – shove your nose into the throat of the other guy.

Bullfrog battle

It turned out to be a winning strategy

After a couple of minutes of struggle, the throat-shoving proved to be a winning strategy, and, as quickly as it had started, the battle was done. The vanquished frog turned tail and hopped away to fight another day, if he is lucky. You see, though these battles rarely cause any harm, there is a price to pay for all this posturing. Male bullfrogs tend to be more exposed in their habitat than the reclusive females, and are more noticeable as they call and move about defending their territories. This makes them more susceptible to predators, of which there are many.

Heron with bullfrog

Great blue heron catches a bullfrog for lunch

We saw this firsthand at another marsh impoundment when a great blue heron snagged a bullfrog (an unwary male perhaps?) and managed to gulp it down in just a few seconds.  Not even a jug-o’-rum will help that guy…