Anybody Home?

Every night in the woods, when most humans are safely indoors, strange creatures emerge from their lairs and leap into the air, swooping silently among the trees.~Michael Farquhar

I was strolling the yard yesterday, looking for whatever small critters caught my eye, when I walked over to the front of the house where we have some shade-loving wildflowers planted. A couple of years ago I put up a new hollow log nest box in that bed, but have had no takers, so I assumed there was a design flaw of some sort or that perhaps bees or wasps had taken over.

IMG_9318

Hollow log nest box in the yard. The PVC pipe surrounding the pole is to help prevent snakes from climbing into the box (click photos to enlarge)

I periodically check all our boxes by gently tapping on the sides or looking inside (on the bluebird boxes with opening fronts) but had never seen anything in this particular nest cavity. So, as I walked by yesterday, I gently tapped the sides, but didn’t bother to look at the box as my gaze was on a fallen log just beyond where I thought I saw something move. After a few seconds, I turned and was pleasantly surprised to see something quietly staring back at me.

Southern flying squirrel at nest box

A calm Southern Flying Squirrel wondering why I woke it up

I was only about two feet away, so I slowly turned, pulled my phone out and snapped a pic. The little guy didn’t budge, so I stepped out in front of the box to get a more straight-on view. Again, I snapped a few images, and it just quietly stared back, not twitching even a whisker.

Southern flying squirrel at nest box front view

After snapping a few photos, I stepped away to let this cute little fur ball return to its afternoon nap

I didn’t want to startle the squirrel, so I walked away without looking back until I was about 20 feet from the pole. When I glanced back, the flying squirrel had pulled back into the hole but was still keeping an eye on the bipedal interloper.

I have reported before on the flying squirrels that visit our bird feeder out back and, though I have not seen them lately, I suspected they were back at it as the sunflower seed seems to be disappearing quicker than usual. Last night, I turned the porch lights on just before heading to bed, and there was a flying squirrel hanging on the tube feeder, stuffing itself. I guess I show my bias when I am happy to share with these smallest of NC’s tree squirrels and much less tolerant of their gray daytime cousins.

Mulberry Moments

Green gives and red receives. Nature is colour coded!

~Sonali Mohan

Some of you may have known him, and, even if you didn’t, you may have one of his bluebird boxes in your yard. Jack Finch started a non-profit, Homes For Bluebirds, to help restore his beloved Eastern Bluebird to the skies of the southeast. He built thousands of quality bluebird nest boxes and was tireless in his efforts to promote ways to enhance bluebird populations. When I worked at the museum, I made frequent trips out to his farm to purchase nest boxes for schools and to talk about bluebirds. He was always experimenting with ways to provide more food for bluebirds from raising mealworms to selecting for late blooming dogwoods that would produce berries later into the season. For awhile, he promoted mulberry trees as a food source, and that is how I ended up with a sapling many years ago.  I planted it in what was then a sunny spot near my shop, and now, the tree produces berries every spring for the local wildlife. I hope Jack would not be disappointed that his tree has more green and red than blue.

It turns out that Scarlet Tanagers are frequent visitors and berry pickers in this tree every spring. This week, as I was going in and out of the shop while tinkering on some woodworking projects, I kept seeing tanagers feeding. So, I brought out the camera, set up the tripod at the door, got comfortable in a chair, and waited.

Male scarlet tanager with berry

Male Scarlet Tanager eating a mulberry (click photos to enlarge)

Scarlet tanager female reaching for berry

Female Scarlet Tanager reaching for a berry

Female scarlet tanager

Female Scarlet Tanager in a rare spot of sunlight in the branches

The tree leans out over the driveway and has one branch down low at eye level. There are only a few spots where a bird can perch that present a clear shot through the branches and leaves, but it was great fun watching them come and go. They are active feeders in that they often have to flutter their wings to maintain their balance while reaching out to the twig tips for berries, adding to the photography challenges.

male scarlet tanager 1

This male landed in spot where the green background provided a nice contrast to his brilliant red plumage

At first, I was usually seeing a pair, a male and female, coming together. On one visit, another male showed up! And a few seconds later, a male Summer Tanager flew in (but avoided having his picture taken), along with what I first thought was an immature male Summer Tanager. It had a lot of yellow coloration mixed with the red. In reading online, it seems that some older females may have a lot of red overtones (females are usually yellow), and this one’s colors are more blended than patchy. I’m not exactly sure which sex this one is, but now I’m leaning towards a female, as the immature males I have seen in the past were more splotchy.

Immature male tanager

A Summer Tanager with a lot of red and yellow coloration

That certainly was a highlight of my mulberry viewing – five tanagers at once! In between tanager feedings, I saw a lot of other species going about their daily routines.

female cardinal

This female Northern Cardinal stopped in for a quick visit

Swainson's thrush

A Swainson’s Thrush was feeding on the few remaining American Holly berries on a nearby tree

Wood thrush

A pair of Wood Thrush made regular foraging trips to the area just outside the shop

ovenbird

An Ovenbird calling nearby finally came for a quick visit

Chipmunk watching me

An Eastern Chipmunk, with both cheeks full, sat and watched me for about 5 minutes before deciding I was safe and moving on

A few notables that I saw but didn’t get photos for included Chipping Sparrows, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, the family of Carolina Wrens that fledged from inside my shop, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Blue Jays, a Red-tailed Hawk, and a Black-throated Blue Warbler. But, the stars of the show are definitely the male Scarlet Tanagers.

side view male scarlet tanager

The red is so intense on a male Scarlet Tanager that it makes a cardinal almost seem pale

I think Thoreau summed it up nicely in his description of a male Scarlet Tanager…

The tanager flies through the green foliage as if it would ignite the leaves.

 

 

Suet Sampler

I don’t feed the birds because they need me; I feed the birds because I need them.

~Kathi Hutton

Sunday was a gray, chilly day here in the woods and the birds were quite active at the feeders. One group of birds, in particular, had my attention, the gorgeous Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. The Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have been back about two weeks. They make a stop of a few weeks every spring on their way to their breeding grounds further north (and in our mountains), and then again in the fall as they head to their wintering grounds in Central and South America. I decided to set up the camera and tripod in our bedroom, open the door to the deck, and record who came to visit the suet feeder mounted on the deck rail. I did something similar a few years back and shared images in another post. This time, I sat for a little over an hour, and tried to take pictures of everything that came in to the feeder. Enjoy the view from our deck…

Rose-breasted grosbeak male

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak (click photos to enlarge)

It started with a single male and we are now up to our usual number of 9 grosbeaks visiting the feeders – 7 males and 2 females. They tend to come in all at once and spread out between our two feeding stations. Their favorite treat seems to be the sunflower seeds at the platform feeders (they have trouble balancing on the tube feeder). But they are also frequent the suet feeders as well, especially the one on the deck which has a branch underneath where birds can perch and reach up to the suet. Because of our superabundance of squirrels, we use only hot pepper suet, which is a deterrent to mammals, but not birds.

Rose-breasted grosbeak males at feeder

Lining up at the suet.

Rose-breasted grosbeak female

Female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are brown with striping and a bold eye stripe.

Blue jay

The undisputed piggies at the suet are the Blue Jays. They can quickly take chunks away, but they are a bit skittish, and flush easily if we are outside or walking near widows inside.

Red-bellied woodpecker female

A pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers (this is the female which lacks a full red head) are regular year-round visitors to the suet.

Downy and chippie

Downy woodpeckers are also regular visitors, but this spring we also have a pair of Chipping Sparrows feeding in the yard.

White-breasted nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch.

Tufted titmouse

We have a gang of Tufted Titmice that make regular rounds throughout the yard.

Carolina chickadee

Carolina Chickadees are with us all year.

Northern cardinal 1

A pair of Northern Cardinals visit the feeders every day, but it is mainly the male that feeds on suet.

Summer tanager

Another of our special suet visitors is a pair of Summer Tanagers (we have only seen the male thus far).

Pine warbler with caterpillar

Pine Warblers are common at our suet in winter but not this time of year. This one stopped by his old diner with a side dish of caterpillar.

I missed photos of two other birds that eat the suet this time of year – American Crows (who are too savvy to come in while I’m sitting there), and our local pair of Carolina Wrens. They are busy feeding their newly fledged young and don’t have time for an appearance.

There have been some other good bird finds this week away from the feeders as spring migration is in full swing and our newly arrived breeding birds are setting up territories or starting to nest. I stumbled across an Ovenbird nest with eggs down in our woods while clearing some invasive shrubs (the dreaded Eleagnus). She flew out of her dome-shaped ground nest doing the broken wing act to lure me away. And we have seen and heard a variety of migrants all week long, some that will stay with us through the summer…

Red-eyed vireo

A bonus visitor just off the deck – a Red-eyed Vireo, foraging for insects.

Scarlet tanager

This is the best I could do with one of my favorite summer species, the vibrant Scarlet Tanager. They tend to be up high in the canopy but should come down lower in a few weeks when the mulberries ripen (a treat for both species of tanagers in our woods).

Yellow-throated warbler in yard

Remember how excited we were to see the Yellow-throated Warbler down low along the Roanoke River? Well, the other day one was hopping around in our garden. While this was happening we saw and heard American Redstarts, a Black-and-white Warbler, a Hooded Warbler, and Black-throated Blues. Ah, spring!

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.

hummingbird-figure-8-wingbeat

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.

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

 

 

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.