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.

Mothing

I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.

~Vincent Van Gogh

This week is National Moth Week, an annual celebration of the incredibly diverse and beautiful world of moths. Wednesday was a busy day out in the yard, testing some different diffusion materials for my twin lites and spending a crazy amount of time photographing the Eastern Dobsonfly I discovered resting on a tree branch. In researching the dobsonfly, I read that they are often attracted to lights at night, so it reminded me of the need to go ahead and inaugurate my new moth light. Yep, you know you are a nature nerd when you have a special light for attracting moths and other night-flying insects. The light is an ultraviolet light, since it seems, for reasons no one is quite sure about, that moths are very attracted to UV light.

moth light set up

Moth light set up (click photos to enlarge)

The set up is simple: I stretched a cotton sheet between two step ladders (most people hang a line between two trees), clamped the sheet to the ladders, hung the light on a tripod handle, and placed the tripod in front of the sheet. I then went inside and checked on the sheet periodically over the next couple of hours.

moth sheet

The moth light and sheet in action

As I expected, when I went out to check, there were an incredible number of insects on the sheet. There were two male Eastern Dobsonflies, maybe one being the same guy I photographed earlier in daylight. Then there were twenty or more decent-sized moths, the largest having about a two inch wing span. But for every moth over a half inch in size, there were probably twenty or more smaller ones. It is no wonder. There are over 2600 recognized species of moths in North Carolina, well over 15 times the number of butterflies in our state. And many of that number are very small in size, making them more difficult (for me at least) to identify. I learned a few things from those few hours of moth-watching: there are a lot of moths and a lot of different species in these woods; photographs on a moth sheet are not the most natural-looking photos; I can spend hours trying to identify moths and still not figure them all out. Luckily, there are now many excellent resources for moth-ers. The ones I found most useful for this region are:

Peterson Field Guide to Northeastern North America, David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie; North Carolina and Virginia Moth Photos (part of Will Cook’s excellent Carolina Nature web site); Moths of North Carolina (part of the excellent series of web sites hosted by NC State Parks and the NC Natural Heritage Program); Bug Guide; and the North American Moth Photographer’s Group.

The field guide has a series of moth silhouettes that can help beginners get to major groups of moths to begin the search. Once you find something similar, you can use the various web sites to help narrow it down. I am amazed at how variable some of the species can be. But, it is a whole new world out there, and these critters are all playing various important roles in the ecosystem, from devouring the leaves and flowers of many plants, to pollinating many of our flowers, to providing food for many other species from insects and spiders to birds and bats. And many are visually stunning, so it is a pleasure to discover them just outside your door. You don’t need specialized equipment to enjoy the world of the night, just the motivation to move away from whatever screen occupies your thoughts and open the door. Look around the porch light, your windows, or simply shine a flashlight amongst your plants and you can enjoy the magical world of moths.

Here are a just a few of the species that showed up at the moth light (confirmations and/or assistance with identifications are welcome):

Brown Panopoda - Panopoda carneicosta

Brown Panopoda – Panopoda carneicosta

Hypagyrtis esther – Esther Moth

Esther Moth – Hypagyrtis esther

Polygrammate hebraeicum - The Hebrew on left; Iridopsis larvaria

The Hebrew – Polygrammate hebraeicum (left; Bent Line Gray – Iridopsis larvaria (right)

Red-fringed Emerald, Nemoria bistriaria

Red-fringed Emerald – Nemoria bistriari

Tulip-tree Beauty - Epimecis hortaria

Tulip-tree Beauty – Epimecis hortaria

Splendid Palpita Moth - Palpita magniferalis ???

Tentatively identified as Splendid Palpita Moth – Palpita magniferalis

Straight-lined Plagodis Moth - Plagodis phlogosaria??

Tentatively identified as Straight-lined Plagodis Moth – Plagodis phlogosaria

Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth, Lithacodes fasciola

Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth, Lithacodes fasciola. Several of the lug moths have the strange habit of pointing their abdomen skyward when at rest.

Rosy Maple Moth

One of my favorite woodland moths, a Rosy Maple Moth – Dryocampa rubicunda

Pink-striped Oakworm Moth - Anisota virginiensis - female

Pink-striped Oakworm Moth – Anisota virginiensis. This female is a little over an inch long and is surrounded by some of the tiny moths I have yet to try to identify.

Smaller Parasa, Parasa chloris

One of the slug moths, the Smaller Parasa, Parasa chloris, on a nearby window screen.

Unidentified - perhaps Genus Acronicta - Dagger Moths???

Unidentified – perhaps Genus Acronicta – a Dagger Moth

In addition to the many moths, a few other critters were attracted to the light:

Cixiid Planthopper

Never seen one of these before, a species of Cixiid Planthopper (I think)

Dobsonfly on moth sheet

One of the two Eastern Dobsonflies that showed up (both males)

Pine Tree Spurthroat Grasshopper - Melanoplus punctulatus - male

A striking grasshopper, the Pine Tree Spurthroat Grasshopper – Melanoplus punctulatus – male

Cope-ing with Night Sounds

The spring breeding chorus also provides evening entertainment to re-affirm our connection with nature.

~Encyclopedia of Life on one of the benefits of Gray Treefrogs

The rains over the weekend brought out an intense display of night sounds that could be heard through the closed windows and doors. Friends came over for dinner Saturday night and they were greeted by the forceful trills of numerous Cope’s Gray Treefrogs (Hyla chrysoscelis) calling from around the water garden out front. The call can be heard here.

Cope's Gray Treefrog

Cope’s Gray Treefrog (click photos to enlarge)

After the guests departed, I went out to see if I could find one of the callers. They all fell quiet as the front door opened. But conditions were perfect – it had rained up until a few minutes before I went out, it was warm, and it was well after dark. These frogs typically are high in trees much of the year, but come down toward the ground when conditions are right for breeding. I quickly found one in a shrub next to the pool, vocal sac partially inflated, as if I had interrupted him mid-trill.

Cope's Gray Treefrog calling

Cope’s Gray Treefrog calling

I did an admittedly poor imitation of a treefrog love song, but it was enough to fool the lusty amphibians into starting up their chorus again. I could see four calling males but only one was easy to approach for a photo. He had chosen a prime spot – a horizontal branch with fairly open surroundings, leaning out over the pool. Some researchers have indicated this type of calling perch is likely to lead to more successful matings. Females are attracted to the strength and duration of calls and will walk toward a male they find “attractive”.

Cope's Gray Treefrogs in amplexus

Cope’s Gray Treefrogs in amplexus (note bright yellow “flash color” under legs)

The female apparently nudges the smaller male and he grasps her from behind in a pose known as amplexus. I found a pair in this gripping position on a log near the water. After an hour or two in amplexus, the pair will eventually make their way to water and lay a loose aggregation of ten to forty eggs, with the male fertilizing them externally. One female may eventually lay up to 2000 eggs per season.

Cope's Gray Treefrog egg mass

Cope’s Gray Treefrog egg mass

After all the calling and amplexus, eggs were laid sometime Saturday night or in the predawn hours of Sunday morning. At least some of the pairs had chosen the relative safety of some shallow water in a raised wooden barrel water garden near the main in-ground pool. The main pool is populated by a host of larger frogs {Bullfrogs, and Green Frogs} which can be potential predators, and so is a risky place to try to lay eggs from the adult treefrogs’ perspective. The above ground tub is much safer, but tends to dry out after a few days of no rain, so is more risky for the eggs and larvae.

Cope's Gray Treefrog eggs

Cope’s Gray Treefrog eggs

The eggs are loosely attached to vegetation in the water and blend in pretty well with the mud and vegetation. I checked on them each day and they finally hatched sometime between Monday afternoon and Tuesday afternoon, a little over three days after they were laid.

Cope's Gray Treefrog tadpole and mosquito larvaa

Cope’s Gray Treefrog tadpole and a tiny mosquito larva

Larvae are initially yellowish-tan in color and about 1/4 inch in length, and don’t look much like a tadpole. But, over the next couple of weeks, they should change dramatically and acquire a distinctive color pattern that includes a high-arching red-tipped tail. Transformation to juvenile terrestrial frogs usually occurs in six to nine weeks. I’ll be watching…

Meals on Wings

They are a peculiarly honest and sociable little bird…they are considerable company for the wood chopper.

~Henry David Thoreau on chickadees

Of course, Thoreau was speaking of Black-capped Chickadees, found throughout much of the northern half of the United States and down into the Carolinas in the higher elevation mountains. This week I have been watching and trying to photograph the look-alike southeastern species, the Carolina Chickadee. I am working on a project trying to film the food items that some of our local bird species feed to their nestlings to show the importance of native plants as habitat for the food that birds need to catch to successfully raise their young. I was asked to start with Carolina Chickadees, probably due to their endearing nature and widespread distribution and association with human habitats. It is a bird that most people recognize and appreciate.

I have a couple of hollow log nest boxes in my yard and both were occupied by chickadees in April. I was excited as I knew this could provide some good natural-looking photo opportunities. But the birds fooled me.

My first week of filming was frustrating. The birds tolerated my presence, but they never paused at the nest entrance so I could tell what they were feeding their young. They just zipped into the nest cavity, delivered the miniscule morsel, and flew back out. So, I have many takes of the clip above. Not very useful, I thought. The young had just hatched so maybe the parents would slow down a bit when they started bringing larger food items. Nope, wrong again. After filming for several days over the nesting period, I gave up on my nest boxes, as the parent birds continued to just zip into the hole.

Chickadee nest box set up

My neighbors’ nest box and perch (click photos to enlarge)

I had alerted neighbors to my project and a couple had offered their nest boxes as subjects, so I went to one that had a wooden dowel perch on top of the box. They had told me the birds would fly to the perch, sit a second or two, then go into the nest box. Success!

Again, the birds were incredibly cooperative. I had camouflage netting to cover me and the camera set up, but as I was setting everything up, an adult flew in, perched nicely, fed the young and left, all while I was standing there in the open. Over the next two days I spent about four hours gathering footage of the chickadee meals on wings program. The more I watched, the more amazed I was at the efficiency of these two parent birds.

Chickadee bringing food to nest

Chickadee bringing food to nest – a caterpillar

I decided to record their comings and goings for an hour to see how many trips they made and what they were feeding to their young. Here are the results for one hour of feeding time from 10:15 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. one day last week:

21 feeding trips to the nest box that brought the following food items

14 spiders, 6 caterpillars, 4 invertebrates of unknown type (on three trips an adult brought two items in its beak)

Chickadee bringing food to nest - spider

Spiders were the meal of choice for this pair of chickadees

The number of spiders was amazing. And, of the 14 spiders brought in, at least 10 seemed to be the same species!

Chickadee bringing food to nest - spider 4

The food of choice

The preferred food item looks like some sort of Sac Spider, a fairly common spider in vegetation in this part of the world.

Chickadee bringing food to nest - spider 2

Not another spider, Mom!

The chickadees in my yard fed their young until they fledged on day 17 after hatching. I did notice many small caterpillars and spiders being brought in. If you do some calculations, it becomes an amazing amount of food gathered…

21 trips per hour equals 252 feeding trips in a 12 hour day

252 trips per day times 17 days equals 4284 feeding trips while the young are in the nest

If the pair in my neighbors yard captures spiders and caterpillars at the same rate for the entire 17 days the young may be in the nest, they will bring 2827 spiders and 1199 caterpillars to their hungry babies.

Even though these amounts are probably off due to the different sizes of food needed as the baby birds grow, impacts of weather on foraging success, and other variables, it still is an amazing number of food items gleaned from the adjacent forest and yard. That is the point of this project, showing the importance of planting native plants in your yard. Native plants harbor both greater numbers and diversity of invertebrates when compared to non-native species. And these invertebrates are critical food sources for young birds. I hope to film some other species as the nesting season progresses, so look for updates in future posts.

 

 

A Rose-y Spring

What strong colored fellows, black, white, and fiery rose-red breasts!

~Henry David Thoreau

They’re back…it will only be for a couple of weeks, but I will enjoy every minute of it. Saturday morning, I saw my first Rose-breasted Grosbeak of the season. Uncharacteristically, it was a female (males usually arrive first in their travels north in spring). Sunday was the first male, and every day this week there have been several (mostly males) stopping at the platform feeders to snarf sunflower seeds.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak, male

Rose-breasted Grosbeak, male (click photos to enlarge)

The males are certainly one of our most glorious birds, both in song and color. Thoreau believed that Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were our richest singer, perhaps, after the wood thrush. They sound like a melodious robin in song. But, to me, it is their bold, contrasting color pattern that make them such a joy to observe as they pass through on migration every spring. Mature males are vividly marked with black and white, offset by a bright rose-colored breast patch. That patch can be quite variable from one male to the next, and can be used to identify individuals coming to your feeder. Females are brown and streaky with a bold white eye-stripe.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak, male 1

Males have a bright, v-shaped patch of rose coloration on their breast

They tend to be wary at the feeders here and have been difficult to photograph except through the living room window, which is how all of these images were taken (except the last one from last spring). They arrive between 6:30 and 7 every morning, eat for a few minutes, then fly off, remaining in the treetops much of the day, with only occasional stops back at the feeders. Their large beak is ideal for quickly making short work of the husks of sunflower seeds (and many other types). A quick video shows how efficient they can be at seed-eating…

They should be around for a few weeks, before continuing on to their breeding grounds further north and in our mountains. They winter in Central and South America, feeding in small flocks on fruit and insects. It always amazes me how they seem to migrate in a wave, with records of first sightings popping up on the internet all over the North Carolina last week. Last spring, I enjoyed some great photo opportunities (see Garden Birds – Rose-breasted Grosbeak) as a few males were feeding at a suet feeder out on the power line, which provided much better lighting conditions than the shade around the house now. Here is a photo from the archives under those conditions.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak on grape vine

Rose-breasted Grosbeak on grape vine from last spring

Many other species are also passing through or setting up territories in my woods right now. In addition to the usual suspects like woodpeckers, doves, chickadees, cardinals, and titmice, these past few mornings we have seen or heard the following: Northern Parula Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Yellow-throated Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Blue-headed Vireo, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Acadian Flycatcher, Ovenbird, Wood Thrush, and a Veery. It is certainly a great time to get outside and look up.

Yard Tour

April prepares her green traffic light and the world thinks Go. 

~Christopher Morley

It happens every year. Things start changing so fast in the spring woods that I can’t quite keep up. There are also the chores associated with spring – fixing up stuff around the house, getting the garden prepped and planted, and so many others we all make for ourselves, too numerous to mention. But, it is what is speeding by outside my window that keeps me wanting to stop what I am doing and take note….spring is whooshing by and will soon be over and I will have missed something for gosh sakes. And that is probably the origin of the yard tour. I’m guessing it started one spring when I just felt it was all whizzing by without notice. So now, as often as possible, I take the camera or a notebook and slowly walk around the yard, observing what is occurring, taking note of what is blooming, stopping to watch something unusual and ponder. It is a good tradition, I think I’ll keep it. So, this is simply a yard tour post…things that I noticed this weekend, things whooshing by, but appreciated by a simple slow walk around the yard.

mulch and topsoil

Things that keep me busy – moving topsoil and mulch (click photos to enlarge)

vegetable garden

The vegetable garden is starting to take shape

garden pool

The garden pool with blossoms from the nearby Red Buckeye tree scattered on the surface…the Spotted Salamander eggs have recently hatched

Green Frog at pool

Green Frog claiming a spot at the pool

pinxter azalea

Pinxter Azalea in bloom – these grow scattered in the woods and along the banks of the nearby Haw River

pinxter azalea close up

Pinxter Azalea close up

Phlox

Wild Blue Phlox

Phlox and foamflower

Wild Blue Phlox and Foamflower

Pawpaw flowersg

Pawpaw from earlier last week

fringe tree

Fringe Tree flowers, one of my favorite native trees

false solomons seal

False Solomon’s Seal is abundant inside the deer fence, absent outside of it

solomon's seal

The same goes for Solomon’s Seal

Viburnum rafinesquianum downy arrowwood

Downy Arrowwood is blooming

shade garden

One of the shade gardens with Wild Columbine, Mayapple, Giant Chickweed, and Foamflower, Toadshade Trillium, and Jacob’s Ladder

deerberry

Deerberry, a wild blueberry

dwarf crested iris blue form

Dwarf Crested Iris, blue form

dwarf crested iris white form 2

Dwarf Crested Iris, white form

coral honeysuckle

Coral Honeysuckle, a hummingbird favorite

wild columbine 2

Wild Columbine, another great hummingbird plant

Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Chipmunk

Pretty in Pink

In nature, light creates the color. In the picture, color creates the light.

~Hans Hofmann

This past weekend was beautiful…cold, but beautiful. I had planned a trip south for some bird photography, but came down with a lousy cold, so I decided to stay home. At least I could gaze out the windows at the awakening landscape. Spring is pouring over the woods here in central North Carolina and everywhere I look there are changes.

Redbud in bloom

Redbud in bloom (click photos to enlarge)

One of the most noticeable this past week is the reddish-pink blush of the Redbud trees in bloom in the understory. The warm days late last week seemed to have encouraged the flowers and I couldn’t help but notice the buzzing of so many bees and other insects visiting these early blooming trees when I went out on the deck a few days ago.

Carpenter Bee on Redbud

Carpenter Bee on Redbud

Redbud flowers are amongst the earliest abundant sources of nectar and pollen in these woods and are therefore a critically important part of the landscape. But, with temperatures dropping into the mid-20’s over the weekend, the insects were silenced. They were replaced by a variety of birds visiting the branches of this tree as they waited their turn at one of the feeders hanging off the deck. After watching all this activity, I couldn’t help but do what any nature nerd with a camera so often does – I grabbed the telephoto lens and sat at the screen door to the deck under my Kwik-camo blind to try to get some portraits of the birds amongst the flowers (isn’t that what most of you do when nursing a spring-time cold?). So, over a period of two days, I sat out for a total of a couple of hours, watching the parade of birds. It dawned on me that I was witnessing a transition of seasons – the juxtaposition of several of our winter bird species with the arrival of our woodland spring. In a week or two, over half of the bird species I saw this weekend will be gone, migrating north, some as far as the boreal forests of Canada, to begin their breeding season. But for now, they all looked pretty in pink, surrounded buy a sure-fire indicator of change in their winter home, the blooming of the Redbud trees. Here are a few of their portraits…

American Goldfinch male early spring color

American Goldfinch male early spring color (resident species)

Carolina Chickadee in Redbud

Carolina Chickadee landing on a twig (resident species, and already starting to nest in nest boxes in the yard)

Pine Siskin in Redbud

Pine Siskin (migrant, soon to head north)

Pine warbler female in Redbud

Pine warbler female (resident species)

Pine Warbler male in Redbud

Pine Warbler male (resident species)

Purple Finch female in redbud

Purple Finch female (migrant, soon to head north)

Purple Finch male in redbud

Purple Finch male (migrant, coon to head north)

Tufted Titmouse in Redbud

Tufted Titmouse (resident species)

Yellow-rumped Warbler male in Redbud

Yellow-rumped Warbler male (migrant, soon to head north)

As so often happens when sitting quietly in a blind, I saw many things happen that I did not capture with the camera. The highlight occurred while I was pulling off the camouflage drape to head in for the afternoon – a Cooper’s Hawk flashed onto the scene, scattering all the other birds. I froze, waiting to see what it might do. It eyed me suspiciously and then flew into another Redbud tree that I could see through the screens of the porch. After a minute or two of surveying the now-empty landscape, the hawk swooped off through the trees. A remarkable scene, even if it isn’t recorded on anything but my brain.

Caught in the Act

If they aren’t the cutest critters and the perfect poster-child for vernal pool protection, I just don’t know what is!

~David Markowitz describing Spotted Salamanders

A friend and fellow naturalist came by this weekend and we went out Saturday night to have a look at the small pool out in the front yard. It is a shallow water garden, probably no more than six feet in diameter. These past few nights a couple of Upland Chorus Frogs have been calling as well as the occasional Spring Peeper. But we hoped to catch a glimpse of some of the Spotted Salamanders that have been laying eggs the past few weeks. As we approached the edge of the pool, a Green Frog jumped into the water, and the finger-nail-running-over-the-teeth-of-a-comb trill of a chorus frog became silent. Our flashlight beam caught some movement – a Spotted Salamander! Then another, and another, their sleek, dark bodies covered in bright yellow and orange spots. Then we noticed one clinging to a small twig beneath the surface and we crowded in for a closer look.

Spotted Salamander laying eggs 1

Spotted Salamander laying eggs (click photos to enlarge)

A female laying eggs! I had placed this particular small tree branch in the pool a couple of weeks ago as a potential egg-laying site for the salamanders that had already gathered after one of our earlier rainy nights. A day or two after picking up a spermatophore deposited by a male salamander, female Spotted Salamanders will begin to lay egg masses. She usually waits until after dark and then searches for a suitable site – small underwater twigs seem to be a preferred location. The female slowly crawls along the stick and then grasps it with her hind legs. She then presses her body against the twig as she extrudes the eggs, s few at a time, all in a gelatinous mass. Our female seemed to stop as we shined the light into her world, perhaps disturbed by this unusually bright bit of moonlight. After photographing and watching her for a few minutes, she crawled off into the leaf debris in the bottom of the pool.

Adult Spotted Salamander in hand

Adult Spotted Salamander in hand

Another female was just out of the water on a mat of vegetation. We briefly held her for a picture, then released her back onto the safety of the water. I imagine these adult salamanders will be in the pool another week or two before heading back to their terrestrial habitat in the rich woods around the house, until next winter, when the rains of a January to March evening beckon them back to renew their mission to add more of their kind to our woods.

Spotted Salamander egg masses

Spotted Salamander egg masses on the same twig from Saturday night

I went out this morning to check on the eggs and it looks as though our disturbance Saturday night was only a minor one, as there were many more small egg masses on that same twig. Now, to wait for the warm temperatures to hasten the development and hatching of the eggs into hungry salamander larvae. These fish-less pools are truly amazing habitats and ones worth protecting or creating.

 

Finch Findings, Part 2

Here are the long overdue results of the winter finch quiz from my last post, Finch Findings.

Purple Finch female

Purple Finch female – note the bold eye stripe and heavy streaking (click photos to enlarge)

House Finch male

House Finch male – note the red color is confined mainly to the head and breast area, with brownish streaking on sides

Purple Finch male on pine branch

Purple Finch male – note the raspberry juice color, and hint of a whitish belly. There is also a darkish stripe behind the eye. I also think the bill looks “heavier” than that of a House Finch.

House Finch male 2

House Finch male – note the streaking on the breast

Pine Siskin 1

Pine Siskin – from this angle, it is mainly the streaking and very pointed bill that gives it away

On a less pleasing visual note…while photographing the finches last month, I noticed something I see every few years in the House Finches I encounter.

male house finch - good eye

Male House Finch shows his “good” right eye

One finch landed and looked over his shoulder. After I snapped a quick photo, he turned his head to reveal a problem.

Male House Finch with finch eye disease

Male House Finch with House Finch disease

His left eye was swollen and red, an indicator of an eye disease known as House Finch Disease, or Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis. The disease is caused by a strain of bacteria that previously was known to infect only poultry and pigeons. It was first noticed in House Finches in the Washington, D.C. area in 1994. It spread rapidly through the House Finch population in the East and then was discovered in finches in their native western U.S. range in 2004.

Female House Finch with finch eye disease

Female House Finch with House Finch Disease

Birds can apparently recover from the disease if they don’t starve or get killed by predators (it certainly impacts their vision and thus their feeding efficiency and predator avoidance) but they are still carriers of the disease. It is transferred by direct contact with other birds, especially when flocking together in winter and congregating at feeders. Researchers say that the disease has cut the booming population of House Finches in the East by as much as half, but that now appears to have stabilized. While it is mainly found in House Finches, the disease has occasionally been seen in other finch species like American Goldfinches and Purple Finches. One source recommends periodically cleaning your feeders with soapy water and a mild bleach solution to help reduce this and other bird diseases.