Birds in the Garden

Poor indeed is the garden in which birds find no homes.

~ Abram L. Urban

This garden (NC Botanical Garden) is anything but poor if the birds are any indication. Bird activity seems to have increased dramatically the past few weeks. Many seem to be thinking of the coming nesting season…bluebirds singing from atop nest boxes, a house finch gathering nest materials, and a brown-headed nuthatch checking out a cavity in a snag. And bird activity in the feeding station near the bird blind has really picked up. We moved the feeders closer to the blind this week and I went down yesterday for about 15 minutes to see what was happening. The late afternoon light is not conducive to photography from the blind itself, so I was just standing out near the feeders with the light coming in over my shoulder. It didn’t take long for things to get busy, very busy. In 15 minute I saw 16 species, with some great views of most. I’m hoping to create some interpretive information so I grabbed a few photos while standing in the midst of the avian mess hall.

cardinal and bluebird

It’s not every day you see these two species at the same feeder (click photos to enlarge)

brown-headed nuthatch on suet log

Brown-headed nuthatch on suet log

tufted titmouse

Tufted titmouse

white-breasted nuthatch

White-breasted nuthatch

northern cardinal

Northern cardinal female

downy woodpecker

Downy woodpecker

pine warbler and reflection

Pine warbler

Here is a list of species seen yesterday in the bird observation area (not bad for 15 minutes):

Eastern Bluebird; Northern Cardinal; Carolina Chickadee; Tufted Titmouse; White-breasted Nuthatch; Brown-headed Nuthatch; Yellow-rumped Warbler; Pine Warbler; Downy Woodpecker; Mourning Dove; Brown-headed Cowbird; Dark-eyed Junco; White-throated Sparrow; House Finch; Ruby-crowned Kinglet; Carolina Wren

Humming Along

One minute poised in midair, apparently motionless before a flower while draining the nectar from its deep cup—though the humming of its wings tells that it is suspended there by no magic—the next instant it has flashed out of sight as if a fairy’s wand had made it suddenly invisible.

~Neltje Blanchan, 1923

hummingbird at feeder

Hummingbird on a feeder (click photos to enlarge)

It seems the hummingbirds have been zipping about the yard with added intensity these past couple of weeks. Maybe they are like me and it is the heat that is making them grumpy. Or maybe they know the season is about to change, and that they will soon need to move on, so they had better stock up for the long flight. Whatever the reason, it has been quite a show at the feeders and flowers scattered around the yard. I typically see 4 or 5 of the tiny jet fighters at once, meaning there are probably 4 or 5 times that many around the yard. Our place is so shaded that it is hard to find a good sunny spot to photograph them other than in the morning, when the sun highlights the pathway to one of the feeders on the front porch. The past few days have found me standing out in the yard, watching their comings and goings, and trying to capture a few moments of their hectic lives.

Hummingbird silhouette

Hummingbird surveying his domain

Hummingbirds tend to perch near their favorite feeders/flowers, guarding them against interlopers that might get some of “their” nectar. One bird likes a particular dead branch hanging out over the front walkway.

Hummingbird releasing liquid waste

Hummingbird in mid-air (note – it is excreting as it hovers)

While things at the feeder can be frenetic, I spent a lot of time standing and waiting. Studies have shown that hummingbirds feed, on average, 5-8 times per hour, but only for 30 – 60 seconds at each feeding.

Ruby-throated hummingbird imm male 4

This one has kicked it in to overdrive as it approaches a feeder

But when they do move in, they do it with gusto. There is nothing subtle about their flight. They are pure aerial acrobats, and a joy to watch. Here are some incredible facts about hummingbirds from two sources: The Hummingbird Book, by Donald and Lillian Stokes; and Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project.

Ruby-throated hummingbird imm male

A hummingbird hovering

Hummingbirds have the amazing ability to fly forward at speeds up to 50 miles per hour, can hover, fly backward, and even upside down briefly. The number of wing beats is also impressive – 60 times per second in normal flight; up to 200 times per second in courtship flight dives.

Ruby-throated hummingbird in flight

Hummingbirds hover better than other birds

Their unusual wing structure allows hummingbirds to hover better than most other species. Unlike other birds, the bones in the wing of a hummingbird are fixed, except at the shoulder joint, which can move in all directions.


Wing motion of a hovering hummingbird

While hovering, a hummingbird’s wing moves forward and then the leading edge rotates almost 180 degrees, and moves back. As this motion is repeated, the tips of the wings trace a horizontal figure eight in the air.

female ruby-throated hummingbird in flight

Female ruby-throats generally have white bellies and throats, and are slightly larger than males

Female ruby-throats are  often more aggressive at feeders than males, since they are usually slightly larger. The average male weighs about 3 grams, or about the same as a penny. The average female is slightly larger, weighing in at about 3.5 grams. But both sexes can put on considerable weight this time of year in preparation for the migration south (often almost doubling their mass prior to flying south).

Ruby-throated hummingbird back view

White-tipped, rounded tail feathers, belong to female or immature male ruby-throated hummingbirds

Ruby-throated hummingbird male with pointed tail feathers

Adult males have pointed, dark-tipped tail feathers

Male ruby-throated hummingbirds are the first to arrive on the breeding grounds in spring, and the first to leave to return to their winter homes in late summer. Many of the adult males have already headed south, so, at first glance, it may look like a bunch of females in your yard. But, a closer look may give you some insights. While the tail feathers of adult males are dark-tipped and pointed, those of young males resemble the female, being rounded and white-tipped.

Ruby-throated hummingbird imm male showing one red feather

Young males often have streaked throats and just a few feathers showing red color

A better way to distinguish the sexes is to look at their throats. First-year males often have streaked throats (some females can as well), and frequently will have a few red feathers in their throat patch (or gorget) by this time of year.

Ruby-throated hummingbird adult male

Adult male ruby-throats have a brilliant red gorget, that can vary in intensity according to the light

Adult male ruby-throats have about 200 specialized feathers on their throat patch, which is called the gorget. The outer third of these feathers are iridescent. They have microscopic grooves and air bubbles that scatter and refract incoming light to make the feathers appear red. But, the iridescent part of the gorget feathers are flat, and only reflect light in one direction.

Hummingbird male with dark throat

Adult males have dark throats (color varies according to how the light hits the feathers)

You have to be looking at the feathers from the right direction in order to see the flash of iridescent red. From other viewing angles, the feathers appear dark, or even black.

Hummingbird blinking close up

Hummingbirds have “eyelashes”

In looking at my images, I found several where the hummingbird was blinking. It almost looked like they had eyelashes. Well, in a way, they do. They have short bristle-like feathers along the edge of their eyelids. They probably function similar to our own by helping keep objects out of the bird’s eyes.

Ruby-throated hummingbird at jewelweed 2

Hummingbirds in my yard feed from a variety of wildflowers, in addition to the sugar water feeders

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are believed to ingest at least half their weight in sugars each day. If you watch them closely, you can see they also feed on small insects and spiders, often snatching tiny flying insects out of the air.

Ruby-throated hummingbird at jewelweed 3

Young male hummingbird hovering and feeding below a jewelweed flower

Dining on the wing as they do, hummingbirds have significant flight muscles, which account for about 25% of their body weight. Compare that to the analogous pectoral muscles of a human which make up a mere 5% of most humans.

Hummingbird sticking out tongue

Even at rest, they are humming along at a fast pace

A hummingbird is fast-paced even at rest – their heart rate is about 1250 beats per minutes and they breathe about 250 times per minute while perched. And what about that tongue! They can extend it a distance about equal to the length of their bill. And when lapping up nectar or sugar water at your feeder, their tongue flicks in and out about 13 times per second. They are truly remarkable birds, the flying jewels of our gardens. Enjoy them while they are still here, humming along at the flowers and feeders wherever you live.

Stormy Night

It was a dark and stormy night, the rain fell in torrents…

~Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1830

And indeed it was…last night. We barely beat a fierce thunderstorm as we drove back from dinner with friends in Chapel Hill. The sky was flashing with rapid-fire lightning when we arrived at our gate. I must have done something right recently, as just when I stopped at the gate, my driver’s side windshield wiper arm came apart. That would have been very problematic a few minutes earlier as we drove through a downpour. The rain let up just long enough for us to get inside, and then the sky opened up, and down it came. Something else must have come down somewhere as it wasn’t long before the power flickered, and then went out. A reminder of how really dark it can be out here in the woods…incredibly lively as well. Outside, I could hear another chorus of Cope’s gray tree frogs cranking up, another attempt at spreading the genes around. Most of the sound was coming from the water garden that sits half-empty, awaiting repair. I mentioned it in an earlier post as the source of the abundance of transforming tree frog tadpoles in the yard. And it looked like this would be another night for creating the start of many mini-frogs.

The rain let up so i wandered outside (sans camera, unfortunately) to see what all the fuss was about. I discovered a couple of reasons why it isn’t easy being a tree frog in love. A huge bullfrog was sitting over by one pool, the one without the breeding tree frogs. A guy that big can easily grab and swallow any tree frog that comes his way. That may be one reason the tree frogs are using the other pool, although I think it also has something to do with the thick cover of duckweed and other vegetation in the bullfrog pool. When I walked over to the tree frog pool, I saw another potential hazard to romancing frogs – a copperhead was dangling out over the pool, no doubt waiting for a love-struck frog to venture too close. By the way, that is one reason that pool will remain in a state of disrepair until colder weather arrives. I prefer moving all those stones after certain species are retired for the year.

The rain started up again so I retreated indoors. I soon heard a frog calling from out front, sounding like it was just outside the front door. I grabbed the camera and stepped out underneath the covered entrance way. The rain paused and I heard the frog call again, very close.

Cope's Gray Treefrog on walkway

Cope’s gray tree frog sitting on walkway (click photos to enlarge)

I knelt down, and spotted the caller perched on the edge of our wooden walkway into the house. He was facing the to-be-repaired pool, the source of all of the other calling. Suddenly, he puffed his body a couple of times, as if taking a deep breath…

Cope's Gray Treefrog calling side view

Gray tree frog calling

…and let go with a loud trill. His vocal sac extended for a second or so, just long enough for me to fire off a shot. I sat and watched him call a few more times before heading back inside. I figured he would soon hop off toward the other pool and join in the breeding frenzy. It is getting a little late in the summer for a full-on bout of tree frog breeding (the peak of activity is usually from late May – July), but you wouldn’t have known it last night. It has been a wet summer, and the frogs are taking advantage of every last storm, and last night it really seemed like it was raining cats and dogs (or frogs and toads at least). We probably had close to 2 inches of rain in the storm, and power remained out until about 5:30 this morning.

Right before heading to bed, I looked out the front door again. The calling frog had turned and was now facing me. I couldn’t let that obvious invitation go unanswered, so out I went with my camera one more time.

Cope's Gray Treefrog front view

Catching his breath before another trill

I bent down a couple of feet away and he sized me up, but apparently had more important things on his mind…trilllllll!

Cope's Gray Treefrog calling front view

Nice trill…

About that time, my camera battery died, so I headed back inside to a darkened house. I don’t know whether his efforts eventually paid off or not, but I felt lucky to have shared a few moments of darkness with such good company.


The frog forgets that he was once a tadpole.


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



Suet Sightings

I think the most important quality in a birdwatcher is a willingness to stand quietly and see what comes.

~Lynn Thomson

This past week must have been the peak of spring migration in our woods. Every time I looked out, I saw something of interest, either just passing through among the branches, or stopping by the feeders.

Rose-breasted grosbeak in tree 1

Rose-breasted grosbeaks have been very abundant this past week (click photos to enlarge)

One of my favorite migrants is the rose-breasted grosbeak. They have been here for a couple of weeks now but seem to have reached their peak this past week. I have counted as many as eight at one time near the feeders. The males are one of our more boldly marked birds, with striking black and white and a colorful rose-colored breast and underwings.

Rose-breasted gtrosbeak female

Female rose-breasted grosbeak

Females arrived about a week after the males and don’t seem quite as abundant. They are drab in comparison, but are still a striking bird, especially with that bold head stripe and huge beak.

Rose-breasted grosbeak ifemale at suet

Female rose-breasted grosbeak helps herself to some suet

And they have been putting that beak to good use at both the sunflower feeders and the suet. It seems the suet has been getting more than its share of visitors this spring and on a few recent days, the birds have gone through more than one entire suet cake in a day (there are two suet feeders out).  I decided to set the camera up with the tripod, 500mm lens, and a flash, to see what I could record. The light is best late in the day when there is a shadow cast on the feeders, but still plenty of ambient light on the trees behind the deck. The flash highlights the birds without appearing too harsh, as is the case earlier in the day. In three afternoons, I had some pretty good luck, plus some bonus species that didn’t visit the suet, but were feeding in nearby trees.

Female common yelowthroat

Female common yellowthroat foraging in some low shrubs

Among the passers-by were a few warblers, including a female common yellowthroat, a worm-eating warbler, some northern parulas, and several black-and-whites. Some beautiful non-warblers also made the scene – American goldfinches, northern cardinals, blue-gray gnatcatchers, and summer and scarlet tanagers, along with a few others I’ll mention later.

Rose-breasted gtrosbeaks at suet

A pair of male rose-breasted grosbeaks at the suet

But most of the action has been at the suet feeders. So, close to one of the feeders on the deck, I attached a branch to the rail with a clamp, and set up the camera in the bedroom with an open door (yup, real wilderness photography), and waited. Here are a few of the highlights…

Blue jay at suet

A pair of blue jays have been making the rounds

Carolina chicadee on branch

A Carolina chickadee having a bad hair day

Downy woodpecker male on branch

Downy woodpecker hanging on

Tufted titmouse

Tufted titmouse thinking…suet or seed? So many choices…

Red-bellied woodpecker male on branch

Red-bellied woodpecker male showing how he got his somewhat confusing name

Black-throated blue at suet

A black-throated blue warbler is the highlight of my suet sightings

But, of all the birds that are coming to the suet, my favorite has to be a male black-throated blue warbler. This is the first time I have had one of these beauties visit a feeder. There have been several moving through the trees (including one female that I have spotted), but this little guy is a regular visitor at the suet.

Black-throated blue on branch 2

This little male is rather bold, but only stays a few seconds on each visit

Male black-throated blues are one of our most stunning spring warblers, with a beautiful blue back and top of head, set off by the black throat and sides, and a white belly. They are common spring migrants in the east as they head north or to our mountains to nest. They may look so fresh and bright because they probably spent the winter in the Bahamas or the Greater Antilles. My warbler guide says they are frequent feeders at peanut butter or suet during migration, so I am glad this one (or more than one?) is living up to its reputation.

Black-throated blue on branch best

A quick pose, and then off he goes

I am glad I am around to appreciate the beauty of this tiny visitor, however long it decides to hang around. Sunday afternoon was a special treat with this guy visiting every 30 minutes or so, plus, out in the yard, a great crested flycatcher, two blue-gray gnatcatchers, and two male northern orioles (a new species for the property).

Rose-breasted grosbeak male on branch

Rose-breasted grosbeak waiting his turn

Oh, and the rose-breasted grosbeaks are still here, chowing down. Guess I had better get some more suet.

Eggs in the Yard

Notice the small things. The rewards are inversely proportional.

~Liz Vassey

While sitting out in the yard last week, we noticed a butterfly flitting around a few plants at the edge of the woods, a flight pattern that usually indicates it is a female looking for a place to lay an egg. The butterfly was an Eastern tiger swallowtail, so we knew she was looking for either a tulip poplar or a wild cherry, the two common host plants in these woods. She finally landed on a tulip poplar leaf, paused for a couple of seconds, and flew off. Melissa ran over to look, and after searching for a minute, found an egg.

Eastern tiger swallowatil egg with finger for scale

Eastern tiger swallowtail egg (click photos to enlarge)

Finding butterfly eggs can be relatively easy if you find a female butterfly hovering near her host plants. They usually flit around, twisting and turning, as if searching for something (which they are). They may land on a leaf for a second, “tasting” the leaf with chemoreceptors in their “feet”, to see if this plant is the right one. If not, they move on. If it is, then she may curl her abdomen and linger for a second, attaching an egg in the process. The female secretes an adhesive substance to secure the egg to the leaf.

tiger swallowtail egg

Eastern tiger swallowtail egg on a tulip poplar leaf

Eastern tiger swallowtails lay a greenish egg that blends very well with the leaf surface, making it tough to spot. The past few days I searched a few more tulip poplar saplings at the edge of the yard and came up with a couple of more eggs.

Tulip poplar leaf with egg wide view

Can you see the swallowtail egg on this leaf?

 Hint…click on the image to enlarge…it is on the right side of the leaf.
Tiger swallowtail egg close up

Close up of Eastern tiger swallowtail egg

Swallowtail eggs are somewhat spherical, although the base is a bit flattened where it attaches to the leaf surface. Unlike many other butterfly eggs I have seen, swallowtail eggs lack ridges, spikes, or other sculptural elements that can give insect eggs such exquisite shapes. But, in their simplicity, they are both gorgeous and elegant.

tigr swallowtail first instar 1

First instar larva of Eastern tiger swallowtail (very recently hatched)

Large numbers of tiger swallowtails are flying this spring, so I would have expected to find even more eggs and larvae than we have. But, this forest is dominated by huge tulip poplars, so I imagine most of the egg-laying occurs high up in the canopy, far beyond the peering eyes of a couple of egg hunters. Over the past couple of days we did find a couple of recently hatched larvae down low, so I grabbed a few photos of these bird poop mimics.

Tiger swallowtail early instar 2

Early instar, “bird poop mimic”, of Eastern tiger swallowtail

bird poop

Real bird poop on a poplar leaf (probably don’t want to click on this photo)

I even found a couple of leaves with real bird poop, and I couldn’t resist sharing the similarity to our little caterpillars.

Tiger swallowtail early instar 1

Curled caterpillar looking like some bird poop. Note the silk pad the larva has created on the leaf for attachment.

The combination of a dark background color with a white patch on these larvae does make for a distasteful-looking  mimic.
tiger swallowtail third instar

Later instar (third?) of Eastern tiger swallowtail

Yesterday evening, we found where one of the dark bird poop mimics had already molted into a green version, suspended above the leaf surface on their characteristic silk pad. The larval stage of this species lasts about two weeks and they molt five times as they progress from newly hatched caterpillar to chrysalis.

zebra swallowtail egg

Zebra swallowtail egg on underside of pawpaw leaf

The yard has a variety of host plants for different species of butterflies and moths, so I decided to check for eggs of a couple of other swallowtail species. The small stand of pawpaw is usually good for a couple of larvae of the beautiful zebra swallowtail butterflies. This species lays its eggs on the underside of the leaves, so I started searching and eventually found a few eggs. They are white to cream-colored, and usually placed near the edge of the leaf, which makes sense, since the female lands on top of the leaf and then curls her abdomen underneath to lay the egg

zebra swallowtil first instar wide view

Freshly hatched larva of zebra swallowtail (which dark spot is the caterpillar?)

Yesterday, I again looked for the eggs and found freshly hatched larvae, the smallest ones I have ever seen. Zebra swallowtail larvae are black in the first couple of instars.

Zebra swallowtil first instar

First instar (recent hatch) of zebra swallowtail

A closer view shows they lack a large white patch so common in the other larvae that mimic bird droppings.

Spicebush swalloewtail egg laid same day

Spicebush swallowtail egg on the underside of a spicebush leaf

As luck would have it, while eating lunch yesterday, I saw a dark swallowtail hovering around plants, obviously looking for that special place to deposit an egg. She eventually made her way to an isolated spicebush shrub, and began laying. She flitted from one leaf to another, eventually laying three eggs on that shrub, one each on the underside of three different leaves. These eggs look similar to those of the zebra swallowtail, although perhaps a tiny bit larger.

I checked my parsley and fennel leaves in the garden, but no signs yet of black swallowtail eggs, so I will have to be content with three species of swallowtails for the time being. Still, this is a great start to my favorite time of the year – caterpillar season. It reminded me of a post I did last summer after finding three species of swallowtail caterpillars in one day. But I’ll keep looking at the parsley and the pipevine to see if I can break that record and maybe get to a five cat day this year.





Three Cat Day

Nature is to be found in her entirety nowhere more than in her smallest creatures.
~Pliny the Elder (Roman scholar)

When visiting Yellowstone, it is a great thing when you have a “three dog day”. That refers to a day where you are lucky enough to see the three primary species of canids found in the park – a Red Fox, a Coyote, and a Gray Wolf. Yesterday, in my yard, I had a different type of triple sighting, but I’m not quite sure what to call it. I am definitely in late summer mode, which means caterpillars on the brain, an annual disease that afflicts people like me and anyone else working the BugFest caterpillar tent. So, starting about now, anytime I take a walk outside, my eyes seem to be constantly scanning the vegetation for Lepidoptera larvae.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail black phase female

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, black phase female (click photos to enlarge)

There have been large numbers of Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies in the yard the past several weeks. This phenomenon occurs every few years when some unknown (to me anyway) set of environmental conditions are right – the flowers are crowded with bold yellow and black-striped butterflies. There are also a lot of black-colored swallowtails mixed in, representing a few common species – Spicebush Swallowtails, Black Swallowtails, and the occasional Pipevine Swallowtail. And there is one other – female Eastern Tiger Swallowtails can either be the familiar yellow color with black stripes, or they can be a darker morph, appearing black, or black with a hint of yellow.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail larva

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail larva

So, with all this recent swallowtail activity, my first stop on the caterpillar hunt was a grouping of sapling Tulip Poplars, a primary host plant for Eastern Tiger Swallowtails. After scanning a few, I finally spotted a larvae on the surface of one of the large leaves, resting in a silk pad. This is typical behavior for this species. And, like most of its swallowtail family, the earlier instar larvae resemble bird poop. Guess it is a great strategy to avoid being eaten by foraging birds – look like something they have already eaten and processed. The larvae of this species will eventually turn all green (with small fake eye spots) as it molts and matures.

Black Swallowtail caterpillar last instar

Black Swallowtail caterpillar, last instar

Continuing my stroll, I caught the unmistakable black and yellow pattern of another member of the swallowtail group (family Papilionidae) tucked under some Parsley leaves. Black Swallowtail larvae also start out as bird poop mimics, but this one was in its last instar and had outgrown that unsavory likeness.

Spicebush Swallowtail folded leaf

Folded leaf on a Spicebush, Lindera benzoin

The next stop was a semi-bog garden. There are chances here for two additional species of swallowtail larvae – Spicebush Swallowtails on the Spicebush, and Zebra Swallowtails on the Pawpaw. There were several folded leaves on the Spicebush, the telltale sign of caterpillar activity.

Spicebush Swallowtail larva late instar

Spicebush Swallowtail larva, late instar

I carefully unfolded one leaf and found a comical-looking Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar. These little guys are one of my favorites, with their large, detailed fake eye spots giving them a bit more personality than most larvae. All stages of the larvae of this species spin silk across a leaf causing the leaf to gradually fold over as the silk dries and contracts.

Spicebush Swallowtail larva first instar

Spicebush Swallowtail larva, first instar

It makes a good hideout and probably provides some protection from the many predators out there, especially the hungry birds and paper wasps (wasps cut up caterpillars and feed them to their larvae in the nest). But it also makes them easy to find for us caterpillarophiles.

Spicebush Swallowtail larva

Spicebush Swallowtail larva, bird poop mimic

There were a lot of folded leaves on the plants, especially one near the house I had trimmed that had re-sprouted. I think these fresh leaves are perhaps more palatable for the larvae and therefore more sought out by egg-laying female butterflies. One sprouting plant had what appeared to be all stages of development of the Spicebush Swallowtail larvae (another bird poop mimic in its first three instars).

I tried in vain to find a Zebra Swallowtail caterpillar on the Pawpaw (its host plant), but I have always found them to be one of the more difficult larvae to locate. But, three swallowtail species in one afternoon – not bad. A three cat day? Three cat-tail day? Whatever it should be called, it is a good thing.

Busy Bluebirds

The bluebird is one of the most familiar tenants of the farm and dooryard. For rent the bird pays amply by destroying insects, and takes no toll from the farms crop.

~USDA Farmers Bulletin #513, 1913

I mentioned in an earlier post that I am trying to provide some video clips of what birds are feeding their young for an environmental education film called Hometown Habitat. The nesting season has passed for most local species, but, my friend, Alvin, informed me of a late Eastern Bluebird nest in a hollow log nest box at his house. Being one of the most recognized and beloved songbirds in the east, this is a species I really wanted to get for the project. So, in spite of the heat and humidity, I dragged my gear into Raleigh two days this week to see what I could capture.

Male Bluebird at nest opening

Male Eastern Bluebird at nest opening (click photos to enlarge)

It turned out that the nest box was in a great location for me to film while not disturbing the birds, and staying out of the heat of the sun. It was under the eaves of a shed that was visible from Alvin’s garage, so I set up the tripod just inside the garage and waited. It wasn’t long before the pair began bringing food to the young. I filmed a little over an hour on each of the two days. The first day I was there around mid-day and it was very hot, with temperatures in the 90’s. The birds seemed to take a little break from feeding in the heat (I don’t blame them), so I was only able to get a few clips. I decided to go back earlier the next day and that proved more productive.

Female Eastern Bluebird with caterpillar

Female Eastern Bluebird with caterpillar

I recorded trips to the nest box by both adults for an hour. In that time period, the birds made 12 trips with food. The female did most of the work, making ten of the twelve feeding trips. The male made two trips with food and three without as in the first photo above (more on that later). After looking at the clips, I could make out all but three of the food items brought to the nestlings. Of those I could identify, there were 4 caterpillars, 3 grasshoppers/crickets, 1 beetle grub, and 1 spider. Three of the caterpillars resembled Corn Earworms, but I can’t see enough detail to be sure. There is a corn field on some NCSU property just down the road, so it is possible.

These baby bluebirds probably have several more days in the nest  based on Alvin’s observations. If you make some assumptions about the number of feeding trips during the nest cycle, you come up with some impressive numbers of insects and other food items brought in by the busy parents. Let’s give these bluebird adults an 8-hour workday (an underestimate, I am sure) with ten feeding trips per hour. Stretch that over the typical nestling period of 14 days and you get an impressive 1,120 feeding trips made by the parent birds (again, undoubtedly an underestimate). Then consider that many bluebirds nest two or three times each summer, and it is clear they are consuming a huge number of insects just during the nestling phase.

Here’s a short video clip showing the hectic life of parent bluebirds on a hot summer day.

The first bird in the clip, the male, flies out with a fecal sac after feeding the young. The female then brings in a grasshopper, checks for fecal sacs, and flies off.

While the female did most of the feeding in the two days I watched this year’s nest, the male did stay near the nest a little more. It seems there was something that disturbed him – ants. I noticed he flew to the base of the nest a few times while I was there and seemed to be pecking at something. Here is a short video clip I shot of this behavior:

When I looked carefully, I could see a line of tiny ants coming up the side of the shed and along the outside of the nest box. The male was obviously disturbed by this, perhaps recognizing that these can be a potential hazard to nestlings. On several occasions, he would sit at the base of the nest box and pick off ants as they crawled along the outside edge. Alvin was going to try to redirect the line of ants away from the nest after I left (perhaps with some well-placed petroleum jelly.)

Last spring, I photographed a different pair of Eastern Bluebirds bringing food to a nest box along a power line where I lived.

Bluebird with grub 2

Male Eastern Bluebird bringing large grub to nest box

The difference in habitat made for some different prey items, most noticeably a lot of earthworms and large beetle grubs (probably June Beetles). I reported on this nesting cycle in a blog post last year. I remember being amazed then at the quantity, and size of some of the items on the grocery list for their young.

Every time I observe birds bringing food to their young, I am impressed by the amount of effort it takes and the skill these feathered hunters have in finding and securing prey. It also reminds me of how important adequate habitat is for their survival. We can all help ensure these birds continue to thrive by planting more native plants, protecting existing natural areas, and reducing our use of toxic chemicals in our surroundings. It is the least we can do as responsible landlords to such hard-working tenants.

Moth Royalty

In the jungle, during one night in each month, the moths did not come to the lanterns; through the black reaches of the outer night, so it was said, they flew toward the full moon.

~ Peter Matthiessen

Lucky for me, that wasn’t the case this past weekend, even though an almost full moon shone brightly through the treetops. I set out the moth light again to see if I might capture a few different species now that about a week had passed since my inaugural moth night. On my first check of the sheet, there were some of the usual suspects, including a plethora of tiny moths, several Rosy Maple Moths, and another huge (non-moth) Eastern Dobsonfly. But, there were also a few newbies, which created another excuse to while away the heat of the next afternoon flipping through some field guides (paper and online). Those that really caught my eye had quite distinctive shapes, making it a little easier to refine my search. Once again, identifications are my best guess, corrections are welcome.

Curve-toothed Geometer - Eutrapela clemataria??

Curve-toothed Geometer – Eutrapela clemataria – surrounded by small caddisflies of some sort (click photos to enlarge)

One resembled a stealth bomber.

Datana sp.

Datana sp.

One looked a bit like a banded cigarette butt, somewhat tubular in shape, with a fuzzy head.

Virginia Creeper Sphinx - Darapsa myron

Virginia Creeper Sphinx – Darapsa myron

Another resembled a different military aircraft, some sort of supersonic fighter jet.

Deep Yellow Euchlaena - Euchlaena amoenaria

Deep Yellow Euchlaena – Euchlaena amoenaria

And one just looked like an elegant person wearing a fancy shawl with their arms outstretched (and remember, these were my thoughts on the early shift…imagine what comes at the 2 a.m. shift). Two more checks that night, with the final one being at 2 a.m. That one turned out to be the winner…moth royalty made an appearance.

Imperial Moth, male

Imperial Moth, Eacles imperialis

While driving up the long gravel road the night before, a huge moth had performed a kamikaze spiral in front of my headlights. We came to a stop and I got out and managed to cup my hands around it and found a beautiful Imperial Moth. That was excuse enough for me to set up the moth light that resulted in this report. Imperial Moths are one of our largest so-called Giant Silkworm Moths in the family Saturniidae. They have wing spans varying from 3 to 6 inches, with females being larger than the males.

Imperial Moth, male

Imperial Moth, darker male

There were two of these huge yellow and mauve night-flying insects on the front side of the sheet and one on the back. At first, I thought the two lighter-colored ones might be female (males in the south tend to have darker markings).

Imperial Moth, male head shot

These moths readily cling to your finger when gently touched

When I let one of the more yellow ones crawl up on my fingertip, I could see feathery antennae, an indicator that this, too, was a male (a female Imperial Moth’s antennae are simple their entire length, whereas a male’s are feathery on the basal two-thirds of each antenna). Males usually emerge from their pupa a few days ahead of the females, and tend to show up more at lights. One theory is that females are quickly mated after they emerge and therefore do not travel very far from the plants where they fed as caterpillars. Males, on the other hand, may travel great distances searching for available females, guided by pheromones the female releases.

Imperial moth larva

Imperial Moth caterpillars can reach 4 inches in length and be about the diameter of your pointer finger. Their color can vary from green to brown.

Well, it sure would be great to have some Imperial Moth larvae (they are huge) for the caterpillar tent at next month’s BugFest event at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, so I guess I will be putting out the light a few more nights and hope I get lucky. I suppose losing a little sleep would be worth it if I were rewarded by a visit from the queen of moth royalty.

Mountain Mothing

It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper meaning.

~ Vincent van Gogh

If Van Gogh is correct, then I am ripe and have found deeper meaning, at least as far as mothing is concerned. On the final night of National Moth Week, 2015, I set up the moth light on a farm gate at my parents’ home in the mountains of southwest Virginia. The habitat is very different from where I live. Besides being near the mountains and a river running out back, there is a lot more open ground than I have in my Chatham County woods. In fact, it is mostly open pasture that Dad mows for hay twice each summer. I set the UV light and sheet up along a line of trees that separates their lawn from the pasture. I really wasn’t expecting the kind of diversity I saw in my wooded yard, but wasn’t really sure what might attend the moth party.

Mayfly dun

Mayfly (click photos to enlarge)

As I had anticipated, the nearby river provided plenty of insects that spend part (or most) of their lives in the river. Several Caddisflies and numerous white Mayflies were early arrivals at the party. I was hoping for some Dobsonflies, but they were no-shows. The first couple of visits to the light showed that I was probably correct – the moth diversity, at least of those large enough for me to even attempt to identify, was much less than in the woods at home. But, there were some beetles and lots of tiny flies, and what looked like very small wasps.

Double-banded Grass Veneer, Crambus agitatellus

Double-banded Grass-veneer – Crambus agitatellus

There were also plenty of small moths, some of which turned out to be quite beautiful  (or strange, depending on your perspective I suppose) when you take a closer look. Not surprisingly, almost all the ones I could identify are found primarily in grassy habitats, and their larvae feed on grasses. The name of one group reflects that – the Grass-veneer moths. I suppose the veneer part of the name comes from their habit of tightly clinging to grasses (usually the underside) during the day, making them tough to find unless you flush them out as you walk.

Elegant Grass-veneer - Microcrambus elegans

Elegant Grass-veneer – Microcrambus elegans

One Elegant Grass-veneer perched on my tripod next to one of the small bolts. That bolt is probably less than a half inch across so that gives you some idea of the small size of this individual. They are also distinctive in that this group tends to have long labial pals, giving them a snout-like appearance. The palps presumably function as sensory receptors of some sort.

Below are a few other species I was able to tentatively identify by flipping through my field guide and online resources. As always, any confirmations or corrections are welcome as this beginning moth-er finds it challenging.

Snowy Urola - Urola nivalis

Snowy Urola – Urola nivalis

Clover Looper - Caenurgina crassiuscula

Clover Looper – Caenurgina crassiuscula

Common Gray - Anavitrinella pampinaria?

Common Gray – Anavitrinella pampinaria?

Delicate Cycnia (Cycnia tenera)

Delicate Cycnia – Cycnia tenera  – with a hitchhiker (a small midge perhaps?)

On my last check of the sheet that night, there was a new grou of moths represented – the Tiger Moths. There were at least 6 of these boldly pattered, medium-sized moths on the sheet. I recognized the group but when I started to try to identify to species i was amazed at how similar some of them are. So much so that Bug Guide let me off the hook in trying to nail down a species identification with this statement about the difficulty of identifying some related species in this group…The only full-proof method is dissection and examination of genitalia.

Nais Tiger Moth - Apantesis nais ?

Nais Tiger Moth – Apantesis nais ?

Tiger Moth - Apantesis sp.

Nais Tiger Moth – Apantesis nais – showing underwings that help in identification

Well, then, Vincent, time to call it a night I suppose. I am not sure I am that ripe or looking for that deep of a meaning quite yet.