Big Jaws

The naturalist suffers a pleasant nuisance – not being able to walk 100 yards without being tied to the spot by some new and wondrous creature.

~Charles Darwin

I’m afraid this applies to me and is often why it takes so long to hike (saunter is probably a better term for what I usually do) along a trail or get some task done here in the yard. And so it was last week when I was out doing some weeding and mowing. As I walked by a mulberry tree near the shed, I caught a glimpse of a green object hovering near the tree trunk. I tried to prop up this particular tree years ago using a stake and attached rope that ran through some plastic tubing. The tree had leaned over in a storm and I was hoping to help straighten it, while still protecting the bark. The rope rotted away, but the tube remained, captured by the tree bark. The green object hovered for an instant near one end of that tubing, and then disappeared inside.

green blob going into tube

Mystery green blob disappearing into tube (click photos to enlarge)

I caught just enough of a glimpse to have an idea of what was happening, and I was thrilled. It looked like the work of a leafcutter bee, a native bee whose handiwork (or should I say, jawiwork) I see every spring.

Leafcutter bee cuts on redbud leaves

Tell-tale sign of the presence of leafcutter bees

You may have seen this where you live, small round holes in the edges of leaves. In my yard, the leafcutter bees are particularly fond of redbud leaves. It appears they favor thin leaves that lack a lot of thick venation. The result of the all this activity looks like an overly-ambitious person with a hole-punch has a grudge against your redbud trees. These bees cut circles of leaf material to use in making a nest chamber in some sort of hollow tube or in the ground (more on that in a minute).

I ran in and got my camera and was disappointed to see the bee leaving just as I got back. I had no idea how long it might be before she returned, so I squatted next to the tree and waited. Turns out, the entry into the nest chamber is quick, so I missed my photo opportunity on her next visit as I just could not focus fast enough. Her exit was equally quick, so I knew I had to come up with a plan B (or is it Plan Bee?). I set the camera up on a tripod and grabbed a twig and laid it gently into the tube entrance. I then pre-focused the lens on the twig just outside the tube, removed the twig, and waited again.

leafcutter bee bringing in leaf fragment

Leafcutter bee bringing in a leaf fragment to her nest chamber

It worked. I heard her buzzing toward me, and pressed the shutter just as she approached the entrance. The camera caught her carrying a folded piece of redbud leaf as she approached the entrance to the tubing. She quickly went inside (I could see her movement inside the translucent tube) and took the leaf fragment to a mass of other greenery that was visible a couple of inches inside the tube entrance. She stayed a little over a minute and quickly departed. Within two minutes, she was back with another, smaller piece of leaf and repeated the sequence. But on her next visit, she was not carrying anything green.

leafcutter bee bringing in pollen

Leafcutter bee carrying pollen into nest chamber

This time, it was a load of pollen. This group of bees has an unusual feature compared to most bees – they carry their pollen on specialized hairs on their abdomen.

Bumblebee and pollen basket

A bumblebee with a full pollen basket on the hind leg

Bumblebees and honeybees have special structures on their legs, called pollen baskets, where they carry the pollen they gather.

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Pollen can be seen on underside of abdomen of this leafcutter bee

Some speculate that by carrying pollen on the hairs of their abdomen, leafcutter bees may be more effective pollinators than many other types of bees. As they crawl around on flowers, it may be easier to transfer pollen to receptive flower parts if it is carried underneath their body instead of being packed into specialized structures on their legs.

leafcutter bee leaving after bringing in pollen

Female bee as she leaves the nest chamber, minus the pollen

I started timing the comings and goings of this industrious female and it turns out she was very efficient at gathering and depositing pollen into the nest. It generally took about 1 to 2 minutes to gather the pollen, and then another 1 to 3 minutes to deposit it inside the tube. I could see the green nest chamber through the walls of the tubing. When I worked at the museum, I photographed a nest chamber that had been exposed in a block of wood so you could see the details of their handiwork.

Leafcutter bee nest in hollow

Nest chamber of leafcutter bee exposed by cutting open a block of wood

They construct cigar-like nests made of wrapped together leaf fragments. Each nest contains several cells. The female stocks each cell with a ball or loaf of stored pollen and then lays a single egg in each (each cell will produce a single bee). Nests are constructed in soil, in holes (usually made by other insects) in wood, and in hollow plant stems. They will also use a variety of human-made structures and readily take to artificial bee homes containing hollow tubes.

Leafcutter bee nest chamber

Individual cell cut open to view pupa and bee bread

The museum’s collection also had one cell that was cut open to show the pupa and the “loaf” of bee bread (a mixture of pollen and nectar) that the female stocks as provisions for the developing young. Most leafcutter bees overwinter in the nest chamber as newly formed adults and then chew their way out next spring. One source stated that the last egg laid (that one closest to the entrance of the entrance hole) is the first to hatch, and so on, down the line.

Leafcutter bee

Be thankful to the “big jaws” in your yard

The activity at the nest was complete by the next day. I will now keep an eye on this tubing to see if produces some new leafcutter adults next spring. The genus name, Megachile, literally means big lip, or big jaws, in Greek. Here’s wishing these big jaws a successful birth and hatching. Now that I know more about the cause, I’m starting to like those hole-punched redbud leaves.

 

 

 

 

 

Cope-ing with the Rains

If we can discover the meaning in the trilling of a frog, perhaps we may understand why it is for us not merely noise but a song of poetry and emotion.

~Adrian Forsyth

My apologies for once again using this corny phrase in a post about Cope’s Gray Treefrogs (see previous post about their life cycle). The recent downpours brought us over 4 inches of rain in two days last week. It was a boost for the plants and for our local frogs. A few nights ago I arrived home to the deafening trills of Cope’s Gray Treefrogs. I went out to investigate, and was amazed at how many were calling. It also reminded me of just how loud they can be when you get close to them.

Gray Treefrog on limb

Cope’s gray treefrog on limb near water garden (click photos to enlarge)

The calls were so loud and frequent that it was a little tough to tell where they were coming from, so I scanned the area near the pond with a flashlight and started seeing frogs everywhere. As is often the case, they all stopped calling when I first got close. But, it only takes one, somewhere in the yard, to start up again and they just can’t help themselves, even with a flashlight shining in their face. A spicebush a few feet from the edge of the pool had four calling frogs in it, so I took some time trying to get a decent photo.

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They have long toes and bright yellow flash colors under the hind legs

It turned out to be quite challenging to photograph then in a shrub. Just when I would get close, the frogs would decide to move a couple of inches behind a nearby leaf or twig before resuming their amorous trills

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Looking up at a calling treefrog

It didn’t help my case that my glasses were fogging up and I occasionally bumped a twig with my camera or tripod, silencing all the frogs for a minute or two.

Gray treefrog calling

A cooperative frog on the rock wall of the pool

I finally spotted one out in the open on one of the rocks that form the edge of the pool. I slowly moved the tripod over and clicked a photo, then another, and then just sat and watched this little guy doing his best to attract a female. I shot a short video clip, but later realized that the flashlight I used to illuminate the calling frog created a flickering effect on the video. Oh well, next time I’ll do it right and go ahead and get the video light. But I still wanted to share the sounds with you…it really is incredibly loud.

As I looked around, I started to see paired frogs slowly moving toward the water. Studies have shown that female choice determines mating, and they tend to approach males with longer and more frequent calls (must be an indication of fitness).

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Pair of treefrogs in amplexus

A successful approach results in amplexus, where the male clings firmly to the female as she deposits eggs in the water. The egg mass is externally fertilized by the male. Eggs hatch within a few days and it usually takes 6-8 weeks for the tadpoles to transform and leave the water. The chorus was still going strong as we turned out the lights and headed to bed. I hope the night is successful for them. If so, it will be fun seeing tiny frogs all around the yard in a few weeks.

Longleaf Lost

The power of the ocean
in what does it lie?
In the endless, timeless roar of the surf?
In the immense vistas – the view to the end of the world?
In the glowing spray as it diffuses
the light of the rising sun?
In the power and mystery of its
dark depths?

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No matter—
it brings one to scale
it breathes into one serenity
it insists that one pause…

Once—
was the world filled with
such wild landscapes?
With these tests and salves for the
human spirit?
Before we spent what we did not own?

Were the monarchs of the southeastern forest
as the ocean?
The longleaf pines—
In their endless and timeless ranks
With their immense vistas—
views of waving grasses
as far as the eye could see?
In the power and mystery of their length and breadth?

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Would one have found scale? Serenity?
Would one have been impelled to pause?

Do we mourn for what we have not known
but by glimpses
through another lens?

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Barking Up the Right Tree – Part 2

Here are the answers to yesterday’s tree trunk quiz. How did you do?

sycamore bark

American sycamore, Platanus occidentalis

One of the largest trees in Eastern North America. The white, mottled upper trunks and branches make it one of the most recognizable of our trees, especially in winter.

Ironwood trunk

American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana

I have always called this distinctive tree, ironwood, due to its dense, hard wood. The fluted trunk does look muscular, hence the name musclewood. Blue beech is another name I have heard for this generally small understory tree.

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Hackberry, Celtis species

This one caused some of you some trouble. And, truth be told, I am not sure which of the two common species of this tree I photographed. The two found along this trail are C. laevigata and C. occidentalis, now known as Southern and Northern Hackberry, or Sugaberry. I think they are best told apart buy their leaves (and, those aren’t available right now). Both are characterized by warty knobs on the trunk, which can be sparse or dense (like this one). This one was in the floodplain, so I think it might be C. laevigata.

Flowering dogwood trunk

Flowering dogwood, Cornus florida

Our state flower (and the state tree of Virginia and Missouri), the flowering dogwood is a favorite, especially in spring. The red berries are a very important food source for many species of wildlife from bluebirds and turkeys to squirrels. As one person commented, she had learned that the bark looks like alligator skin. A co-worker said she learned the pattern looks like Kibbles ‘n Bits dog food.

Sourwood trunk

Sourwood, Oxydendrum arboreum

The bark is deeply furrowed, and the tree trunk almost always leans, supposedly toward a former light gap in the tree canopy. The white spikes of flowers at the tips of the branches and the sour taste of the leaves are distinctive.

American beech trunk

American beech, Fagus grandifolia

One of my favorite trees, the American beech has smooth, gray bark, usually dotted with lichen patches. It often has a root parasite, beech drops, growing on the ground around it. This time of year, the dried leaves clinging to the branches and the elongate terminal buds are also distinctive.

Loblolly pine

Loblolly pine, Pinus taeda

Our most common local pine, the loblolly can grow to be quite large. It’s longish needles and cones are characteristic. The clouds of yellow pollen from this, and other pines, will soon be covering our woods (and cars, and…).

Shortleaf pine

Shortleaf pine, Pinus echinata

The other common pine in our local woods, the shortleaf can be distinguished from loblolly by its shorter needles, smaller cones, curved or contorted branches (when looking up, compared to the straighter branches of loblolly), and the flat, scaly bark. The bark also has tiny resin dots.

Now, practice identifying trees just by looking at eye level on your next stroll in the woods. An advanced tree trunk quiz will be coming soon.

Barking up the Right Tree

Knowing trees, I understand the meaning of patience.

~Hal Borland

Melissa and I try to test each other as we walk any trail this time of year with a tree trunk quiz – we try to identify trees by just looking at the trunk at eye level…no fair looking up, unless we are stumped.  I thought I would give that a try as an interpretive challenge for one of the nature trails at work. For now, I just have a few images of trees along the trail with answers on the back. Think you can identify trees just by their bark? Give it a try. I gave a hint for each with the photo caption. Answers will be provided in the next post.

sycamore bark

Upper trunk and branches have peeling, mottled bark (looks like camouflage)

Ironwood trunk

Small to medium tree with hard wood; trunk looks muscular

hackberry-1

Bark with warty knobs; fruit is an important food source for birds and squirrels

Flowering dogwood trunk

Small tree with dense, hard wood; berries are an important food for wildlife

Sourwood trunk

Small to medium tree; trunks often lean instead of growing straight up

American beech trunk

Large tree with smooth gray bark; dried leaves remain on branches through winter

Loblolly pine

Large pine with needles about 7 inches long

Shortleaf pine

Large pine; needles about 3.5 inches long; small resin pits in bark

Green in the Winter Woods

“And Adam named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living.”

Genesis 3:20

With Mike back at work, I’m going to try to contribute to the blog occasionally. I came upon the perfect topic while out on a “field day” with a coworker, Megan, last week. One of the things I never fail to notice in winter has always been the few small, ground-hugging plants that provide a flash of green in winter. One of the my favorites is cranefly orchid, Tipularia discolor.

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The cranefly orchid has a noticeable, single green leaf in winter. This one is dug up – more on that in a moment.

Just the other day Megan and I were at a school for a workshop. I was off by the creek, and she had the group of teachers in tow. All of a sudden, I heard a “wow” echo through the woods. Megan had just pointed out the somewhat-innocuous, green leaf of the cranefly orchid – and then flipped it over to show them the startling purple color of the backside of the leaf.

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I’m not in good practice taking pictures with a blog in mind, so this is the best shot I have of the back of the cranefly leaf – hopefully, you can notice the brilliant purple color, even if the details are a little fuzzy…!

I’ve heard a couple different theories to explain the purple color of the leaf’s underside. One idea is that it may help reflect light back into the leaf. This makes sense given that it is photosynthesizing in winter when sunlight hits the earth at a shallower angle, and therefore with less energy per unit area than in the summer.

Another theory is that the purple color acts kind of like sunscreen to protect the chloroplasts from too much sun – which also makes sense because with no leaves on trees in winter, there is certainly more sunlight! I’ve heard of something similar in Yellowstone in the microorganisms that thrive in the hot springs – in summer many are orange in color due to “sunscreen” carotenoids; in winter, the same microorganisms have a much more greenish cast (you can also see this in summer by carefully peering underneath the boardwalk where the shaded bacterial mats are much less orange-colored).

A final idea about the purple coloration in cranefly orchid is that perhaps the underside of the leaf is darker-colored to help it absorb more of the heat radiating from the ground to keep it just a little bit warmer in winter. I’m not sure why the leaves are purple underneath, maybe it’s a combination of factors, but it is certainly a beautiful color and a wonderful surprise in the winter woods.

Cranefly orchid has an interesting habit of producing a leaf in the fall that persists through winter, and producing a flower in the summer. The flower is not particularly showy (unless you take a very close look), and can even be hard to spot – especially because the bright green leaf is absent while the flower is in bloom. In fall, after the flower is done blooming, a single leaf grows. Typically in winter you will see only the leaves, but occasionally you may spot a plant that still has the flower stalk with seed capsules attached like a few we found on our walk. The seeds are beautiful small pods and worth a look with a magnifier.

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Close-up of cranefly orchid seed capsules

I remembered learning something interesting from Doug Elliot, a renowned naturalist in the mountains of NC, about the roots of this plant, so Megan and I decided to dig up one of the plants that still had its flower stalk and take a closer look (hence the earlier pictures of an unearthed plant).

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Two corms on root of cranefly orchid; the stalk on the right is last summer’s flower stalk

After some careful digging, we gently pulled the plant from the soil and cleaned off the roots and corms. As I suspected, we found two corms. Out of one sprouted the flower stalk; out of the other sprouted the leaf. Here’s how I think it goes: the leaf photosynthesizes through the winter and stores energy in the corm (the one it’s attached to in this picture). Come spring, the leaf will die and that same corm will sprout a flower stalk, using the energy stored from the winter sun. Sometime during or after blooming in summer/fall (guess I’ll need to dig up another plant at that time to figure out exactly when!), the plant produces a new corm from which another leaf will grow. Seems like a pretty smart strategy to take advantage of the open canopy in winter, when sunlight will hit its home on the forest floor much more so than in summer!

cranefly-orchid-4

Cranefly orchid is related to another plant called putty-root, Aplectrum hyemale. It has a larger leaf with thin white stripes running longitudinally down it. It’s another hint of green in winter, though much rarer than cranefly orchid, at least around here. The underside of putty-root can be purplish, but sometimes it is green; if purple, it is typically not as vibrant in color as cranefly orchid. Putty-root is known to be found in woods with sugar maple and American beech, and indeed, this plant was located in a beautiful beech grove.

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Puttyroot leaf

Another common name for putty-root is Adam-and-Eve root, in reference to the fact that it has paired corms like the cranefly orchid, though I’m not entirely sure which one is Adam and which one is Eve! A quick internet search on this turns up a wide variety of results – apparently, this plant is known for its ability to bring love your way, keep your lover true (the man carries the Adam root and woman the Eve root), and even encourage a marriage proposal. With a little wading through some interesting websites, I now suspect that the corm from which the leaf is growing is the Eve root: she will “give birth” to the new flower stalk in spring. That means the older corm with last year’s flower stalk is for Adam, poor guy.

Whether or not putty-root or cranefly orchid bring you love, they can at least bring you a moment of joy on your winter woods walk and remind you that the green of spring is never far away!

New Beginnings

Native plants give us a sense of where we are in this great land of ours.

~Lady Bird Johnson

You may have noticed a slight reduction in the number of posts the last few weeks. A major reason is that I have been busy with a new chapter in my life, a new adventure. It is a long story, but I am returning to full-time employment as an educator at the North Carolina Botanical Garden (NCBG) in Chapel Hill. NCBG is part of the University of North Carolina, and is a 1,000+ acre assemblage of display gardens and natural areas. It is nationally known as a conservation garden with strong programs in research, education, native plant propagation, and habitat conservation.

ncbg

The entrance to the North Carolina Botanical Garden last year (click photos to enlarge)

I have had a long history with the Garden, having purchased thousands of native plants there that were propagated by their excellent horticulture staff. Those plants ended up in school grounds across North Carolina as butterfly gardens, bird observation areas, and water gardens, as part of the hundreds of workshops I did during my career at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. When I think of native plants in our state, I think of this place. So, it is a natural fit for me to be an educator here, a place I know, with many people that I know and admire, and a mission I can relate to –  to inspire understanding, appreciation, and conservation of plants and to advance a sustainable relationship between people and nature.

The first three weeks have been busy, with a lot of time spent inside working on the computer  (in the nicest office I have ever had it turns out – great view and a window that actually opens!). But, I have had a chance to see a few things in a more natural setting right outside my office door…

Red-shouldered hawk feathers

A feather mystery on my first day

One of the staff found me on my first day and relayed a feather mystery they had discovered while pulling ivy outside one the display gardens. It was a large pile of red-shouldered hawk feathers. We discussed the possibilities and figured the most likely scenario was that a great horned owl had taken a roosting hawk as prey during the night.

Prescribed burn in coastal plain habitat

Prescribed burns in the Coastal Plain Habitat Garden

The staff has been busy the past couple of weeks doing prescribed burns both here at the main garden site and at some of the other properties managed by NCBG. It was a flashback to my state park days when I helped with many burns at various parks in the east.

Spotted salamander egg mass - moved to nearby vernal pool to avo

Spotted salamander egg mass

After a heavy rain one night, I was anxious to check the pools in the habitat gardens, which usually produce good numbers of salamander egg masses. Sure enough, there were a lot of spermatophores covering the bottom of the pools. A couple of days later we went over and saw the first egg masses of the season, always a magical moment, and one that I reported on in a blog post a couple of years ago.

Gray fox at the garden

Gray fox greeting one morning

I suppose my favorite experience thus far happened last week as I was walking into the building from my car. A gray fox, nose to the ground, came out of nowhere and crossed in front of me. A quick glance my way was all the notice I received, then it was back to trotting and sniffing. The fox disappeared, but I could hear some other people across the grounds exclaiming they had just seen it. Suddenly, it crossed my path even closer as I approached the building, and once again vanished.

Gray fox in the Children's Wonder Garden

Gray fox

I went upstairs and grabbed my camera and came back down on the side deck, hoping to see it again. Just when I was about to go back inside, it suddenly appeared on the path in front of me, sniffing the ground as if intent on finding something. I later heard people saw at least two foxes out there, so maybe this one was looking for the other one. I think we re approaching their breeding season, so this may explain this intense searching behavior.

Not a bad way to start a day. If this is any indication of what’s to come, I look forward to being at this beautiful place, and learning and sharing about the natural world in a new setting. Stay tuned…

 

Merlin Magic

…we will not care about what we do not recognize.

~Tim Beatley

I have spent a lifetime trying to learn about the world around me. Not about the financial sector, or cars, or electricity (all of these, I now realize, might actually have come in handy), but about the natural world, the plants and animals that live around me. It is just who I am, what interests me. In his essay on the importance of fostering a connection to the natural world, Tim Beatley starts by saying – What we choose to name and the names we choose to remember, for the places, people and things around us, says a great deal about what is important to us. I have spent a lot of years trying to help people learn the names of things in nature and have come to realize that it takes time. On many of my field trips, I remember being frustrated when people could not remember the name of some interesting creature we had just observed. I finally realized that it often requires that the person is prepared to receive that information and that they want to learn it. In his 2013 article, Dr. Beatley offers numerous suggestions on how we can help foster a connection to nature through helping people become better acquainted with their natural surroundings. He also recognizes that new technologies and applications may of course help us here as well. I-birds and I-trees that make it easier and quicker to identify birds and trees. Well, it is happening…

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The Cornell Lab of Ornithology launched its popular Merlin App in 2014. It is billed as an online field guide assistant for beginning and intermediate birders. The app asks you a series of questions about the bird you just saw (such as the color, size, and behavior), much like an experienced birder would if they were trying to help you identify it. To be honest, I never downloaded that app, figuring I had enough experience to use field guides and figure most birds out on my own. But, late last year, a new feature was added – the Photo ID portion of the app. I heard about it from a couple of people I know, saw a review online by a fantastic wildlife photographer I follow, and then had a friend post about it on her blog. I decided to check it out and downloaded the free app to my iPhone (also available for Android devices; being developed for laptops and other non-mobile devices)..

Details on how it has been developed are mentioned in a press release about the launch of the Photo ID portion of the app last month. The app claims to have about a 90% accuracy rate in identifying over 600 species of North American birds. I decided to give it a test drive and see for myself.

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The app has a simple and elegant design. You simply click the Photo ID tab and either take a photo or choose a photo from your files.

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I used an image of a sharp-shinned hawk I had taken a couple of years ago at Roads End. Even good birders struggle with identifying this species from its larger cousin, the Cooper’s hawk. You zoom the image in until it roughly fills the box…

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The app pulls information off your photo as to date and location. I had to fill in the location information since this was a photo I uploaded from a file on my computer, not one directly from my camera. Once I had added Pittsboro as the location, the app can compare my image to its database of images (I think it has at least 1000 images of each species covered) and then gives you an identification.

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Boom! It got it right. It even gives alternative possibilities if you scroll down in the app. This can be very important for some species where confusion is likely (like this one), or if the photo you use is not that great.

I soon realized I didn’t need to transfer images from my laptop to my phone for identification, I could simply click the Take Photo tab and take a picture of my laptop screen with my phone and use that image. So, here is another. For these next few images, try to identify the species before you see the Merlin App identification. As this progresses, I intentionally use pictures of lesser quality, those that I normally would delete from my files, to see how the app performs.

This first one is a photo of a pretty nondescript species (taken with my phone of a fairly good shot on file on my laptop, note some of the squiggly computer screen lines in the photo).

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And here is what the app said it was…

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Indeed, it is a female of a warbler, the common yellowthroat. The app gives you multiple images of each species so I swiped through and found an image of a female (turns out my image is better than the one they have on file). In all fairness, I knew what that bird was. If I hadn’t, it might have been tough for me to figure out based on the images the app provided. But, the beauty of this is it gives you a place to start in terms of looking up your bird in a field guide (book or online).

Here’s another, a bird I photographed with my iPhone as it was getting dark in the Boundary Waters last October. This bird landed next to us on a boulder and walked around, allowing me to get a good look, and this crummy photo. I did not know what species this was, as I had never seen this one before. Once we got back home, I identified it using my field guides, but the app got it on the first try.

BWCA shorebird

Grainy iPhone photo of an unknown shorebird in Minnesota in October

An American golden plover, a new species for me. Once again, I had to swipe through the images to find the shot of the bird I saw in its non-breeding plumage.

Here are three more just for fun…

raven

Black bird in NC mountains

Merlin gave me the wrong answer the first time, calling this a fish crow. I zoomed in even more, tight on the bill, which is diagnostic of this species, and it got it right (did you?).

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Notice that fish crow is the second option this time (other options are listed below the primary choice in the app). I found that zooming in and out did make a difference on some species. The first time I tried the next photo, I was in very tight on the whole bird and it gave me red-headed woodpecker as the answer.

black throated blue

Mystery bird in NC mountains in May

Zoom in on the photo and see if you can identify it. I edited my photo on my next try by backing off a little and, this time, Merlin was right.

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It is a male black-throated blue throwing its head back in song.

I tried a range of images of a variety of species differing in photo quality. They were all images where I knew the identification of the bird from other, better images, taken at that same time. Merlin did not get a black-capped petrel or the glaucous gull from the pelagic birding trip I took last winter. Turns out that species of petrel is not one in the database as yet, and the gull was misidentified as an Iceland gull. And, it surprisingly gave me a related species (correct species as second choice) on the following really terrible image I used from the Christmas bird count this year.

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Mystery bird from Christmas bird count at Pungo

Guesses?

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Yes, a blue-gray gnatcatcher, a species not often seen in winter in these parts (but also not an extreme rarity). Interesting that it gave me a species from the southwestern United States even though I put in the location information for our count. But, to get any gnatcatcher from that photo is pretty impressive if you ask me. The photo does not show the flitting behavior, nor the relatively small size I witnessed while watching the bird in person.

Overall, I think this app is a great tool for anyone that wants to identify the birds they photograph. I get asked a lot of questions about bird identification (which I enjoy tying to answer, by the way), but I will also be recommending this app for all those folks from now on. Give it a try, download Merlin and have some fun. While you are at it, I recommend making a donation to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to help them continue to produce valuable information for all us folks trying to learn about, and conserve, the birds around us ( I just did).

Refuge Renewal

In such surroundings – occasional as our visits may be – we can achieve that kind of physical and spiritual renewal that comes alone from the wonder of the natural world.

~Laurence Rockefeller

It is the season of renewal for me, the season of experiencing some of the wild spectacles of this place I call home. I had a trip this past week to Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges and, though we ended up leaving a bit early due to the predicted winter storm, it was still a refreshing reminder of why these places are so important – important to the amazing wildlife that can be found there, and important to those of us lucky enough to spend time in them.

Great blue heron

Great blue heron walking in shallows along causeway (click photos to enlarge)

I stopped by the Pungo Unit on my way down Wednesday. Very quiet and the roads were pretty muddy. We started our tour at sunrise the next morning at Lake Mattamuskeet. There are relatively few birds out along the causeway this year, due to the wet year and resulting high lake levels, and the decline in the submerged aquatic vegetation (see recent Wildlife in North Carolina magazine article). You can still usually find a couple of birds near the south end of the causeway, especially some waders like the great blue heron above. I love the textures of their feathers, which seem even more prominent in cold weather.

black-crowned night heron

Black-crowned night heron adult

I always look for a heron or black-crowned night heron on the pilings in the marsh pool just inside the gate to the refuge, but they were empty. But, at the next pool, an adult night heron was out in plain view, and was hunting. I have never seen a night heron at this particular pool in all the years I have been going to the refuge (and haven’t seen much else here the past couple of years since the Phragmites grass has taken over the edge of the pool).

black-crowned night heron strikig at prey

Night heron strikes and catches a small fish (note nictitating membrane to protect eye)

black-crowned night heron scratching

Nothing like a good scratch after a meal

black-crowned night heron close up

The red eye of an adult black-crowned night heron is spectacular

Their red eye is stunning in sunlight. Young black-crowned night herons have yellow eyes, that gradually change to orange, and then red as they mature. Though many species of birds show a change in eye color from young to adult, no one seems sure what the evolutionary significance of this may be.

Bald eagle immature

Immature bald eagle

Among the many birds we saw, there were the usual bald eagles perched along the edges of the lake and marshes scanning the areas for weakened waterfowl that make an easy meal. At one point, we had two immature eagles and a red-tailed hawk all soar out over us.

eagles tangling in mid-air

The eagles engaged in aerial combat

eagles tangling in mid-air 1

One eagle rolled over, extending its talons

Suddenly, the two eagles started to chase one another and were soon performing some serious acrobatics. This may be a territorial battle, or simply their form of play, I’m not sure. Almost as quickly as it had started, it was over. We saw some more of this over at Pungo the next day involving three eagles, two adults chasing one juvenile through the woods.

Anhinga sunning

An anhinga sunning itself

I had seen an anhinga in the Mattamuskeet canals on a visit in December, so I was looking for it again. We found it sunning itself in a tree across the canal from the lodge. Interestingly, this spot used to be the best place on the refuge to see black-crowned night herons (especially juveniles), but the past two winters they have been scarce.

Anhinga swimming

Anhinga, often called the snakebird, for its swimming style

As we admired the anhinga through my scope, another one came swimming down the canal. I think this is the first time I have ever seen two at once on the refuge.

white ibis

White ibis landing in marsh

We continued looking for wildlife throughout much of the day, with many of the usual suspects being observed. We found almost 100 white ibis feeding in a field at Lake Landing, and felt lucky to see a group of American white pelicans soaring over us. We also had a couple of good warbler sightings – a cooperative common yellowthroat male and an orange-crowned warbler. Overall waterfowl numbers seemed low, but there is still enough diversity to get some good looks and decent photos.

Photo blind

New photo blind at Mattamuskeet

It wasn’t until late in the day we discovered the new photo blind on the refuge. It is located along Hwy 94, between the entrance and exit points of Wildlife Drive. Kudos to those responsible – it is a great design with good viewing ports covered by camouflage netting. When we drove up, there were several species of waterfowl just off the front of the blind. They swam off as we walked in, but I think if you spend some time in this spot, you could get some good results once the birds return (you can’t really sneak in without nearby birds seeing you; bring a seat or bucket if you plan to spend time in it). I look forward to returning on a future trip. I hope other public land managers will consider putting up similar structures. This one was funded, at least in part, by a grant from the North American Nature Photography Association.

Swan taking off in Marsh A

Tundra swan taking off

That afternoon, we headed over to the Pungo Unit to hopefully enjoy the evening show of swans and snow geese returning to Pungo Lake. As I mentioned in my last post, the swans have been amazing this winter, and they did not disappoint.

Snow geese overhead

Snow geese flying high overhead

In our almost two days on the Pungo Unit, we did see the elusive snow geese flying far off the refuge to feed, returning a relatively short time later. A few thousand (of the estimated 15-20,000 birds) flew over us as walked down North lake Drive on our second day out, coming in at a very high altitude as they approached the lake. They continue to be unpredictable in their movements, although I think they will be closer to the refuge roads once some of remaining corn on refuge lands is knocked down (I expect that to happen very soon).

bear jumping ditch

A young bear jumps over a drainage ditch

This has been a strange winter for the black bears at Pungo. We saw what seemed the usual number on our trip in mid-December (8, as I recall). But since then, sightings have been few and far between, including being skunked in bear sightings on our Christmas Bird Count the last week of December (maybe the only time that has happened in over 30 years of doing that count). On this trip, I saw three (a sow and two yearlings) my first afternoon, and then we saw only three others in two days – one in the front fields coming out of the corn at sunrise, one feeding in corn and one cruising across the corn fields along North Lake Road.

bear play area

What looks like a bear play area in the woods

Pawpaw with stripped bark

Bark stripped from a pawpaw tree by a bear

There seems to be plenty of fresh bear sign in the woods and along the edges of the fields (although not as much scat in the roads as usual), so I am not quite sure what is going on. I think there may be increased hunting pressure on local bears at the edge of the refuge and this may be altering their behavior and making them more secretive, as well as reducing their numbers with greater numbers of bears that venture off the refuge being taken.

sunset and swans

Sunset with swans returning to the refuge

It is still a magical place, especially at sunrise and sunset. The swans fill the evening sky with magical sounds and the graceful lines of returning birds. I’ll leave you with a video clip from our sunrise at Pungo and the swans that make this refuge such a place of renewal for myself and so many others that spend any time in it.

Red-shoulders

The sparrow flying behind the hawk thinks the hawk is fleeing.

~Japanese proverb

Red-shouldered hawk

Red-shouldered hawk at the NC Botanical Garden (click photos to enlarge)

Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to work with my friend, Mary, to provide an introductory bird photography class at the NC Botanical Garden (NCBG) in Chapel Hill. It was next to the last in a series of programs that were part of the Saving Our Birds program initiative the Garden has sponsored this year. For part of the program, we went outside into the brisk morning air, spending time in their very active bird blind area, and the rest of the time walking around the native plant display gardens, looking for birds to photograph. The highlight of the day was a beautiful red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus), that was most obliging to our group.

red-shouldered hawk back view

Back view of red-shouldered hawk

Red-shouldered hawks are medium-sized buteos (soaring hawks) easily recognized by their rusty, barred breast, and the bold black-and-white bands on their tail. Immature birds are a bit tougher to identify – their tail is dark brown with several narrow brown bars and they have a pale breast with thick dark streaking that somewhat resembles several other common raptors. The area around the display gardens at NCBG has been home to at least one pair of red-shouldered hawks for several years. They seem well-adjusted to the comings and goings of people at the Garden. This one was perched in a tree near the building complex for much of the morning and early afternoon. This allowed our class to photograph it from many angles so we could try to avoid the cluster of twigs and branches that surrounded the hawk. The light was perfect and the bird cooperative, a perfect scenario for photographers.

red-shouldered hawk close up of shoulder

They have rusty red coloration on the feathers on their shoulders (lesser upperwing coverts)

After the program, I went back out to the tree with my 500mm lens and spent over an hour with this beautiful bird, watching it, and taking way too many photos. I appreciated the chance to simply observe this raptor and take notice of its many traits and adaptations. The light was so rich that I could clearly see the reddish colors of their shoulder feathers that gives this species its common name.

red-shouldered hawk open eye

“Eyes like a hawk” means someone with exceptional vision

The feature that stood out for me was its eyes…so intense, so fierce. According to several online resources, raptors can see anywhere from four to eight times better than the average human. This is accomplished by a couple of adaptations. The eyes of a hawk are proportionally larger than a human eye, occupying some 10-15% of the weight of the head, compared to about 1% in humans. Hawks also have more concentrated areas of rods and cones than we do, giving them higher resolution (sharper) vision. They have two fovea (one central and one peripheral) compared to just a central one in humans. The fovea is the spot on the back of our eye with the highest concentration of rods and cones.

Like us, raptors have binocular vision, with the eyes placed facing forward on the head. This allows them (and us) to judge distances better and to focus on something with both eyes at once. Hawks can also reportedly perceive more colors than us, and can also see ultraviolet light (which may help in tracing urine trails of small mammals in vegetation).

nictitating membrane half open 2

The nictitating membrane sweeps from front to back

A bird also have some extra protection for their eye, a third eyelid called a nictitating membrane. This is a thin, translucent membrane that is used for protecting, lubricating, and cleaning the eye. A bird can still see when this membrane covers the eye, whereas we cannot when our eyelid closes. Birds also have a moveable upper and lower eyelid. The upper eyelid moves downward when a bird blinks. The lower eyelid moves upward when a bird sleeps. The nictitating membrane moves horizontally across a bird’s eye, sweeping from front to back. Based on my afternoon of hawk-watching, birds must use the nictitating membrane much more frequently than they do their upper eyelid. I took about 680 images (see what I mean, way too many) of the hawk that afternoon and captured 6 sweeps with the nictitating membrane, and no blinks with the upper eyelid.

red-shouldered hawk talons

Talons are long, sharp claws

Red-shouldered hawks feed on a variety of prey including reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals. Their feet and talons are used to capture and hold struggling prey.

red-shouldered hawk head from side

A hawk profile showing the sharp hooked beak

Hawks have sharp, hooked beaks used to grab prey, pull off fur, skin, or feathers, and tear the meat into bite-sized chunks. I kept hoping this hawk would sail down to capture something, but all it did was occasionally focus on some unseen item of interest in the vegetation around me.

hawk preening 1

Scratching an itch

Hawk preening

Preening

hawk preening head back over shoulder

Checking out the back side

In addition to watching everything around it, the hawk occasionally did what all birds spend a lot of time doing – preening its beautiful feathers. Preening is accomplished by running the feathers through the talons or beak, gently pulling and realigning feathers for their optimum condition. This feather grooming can also help rid them of parasites, debris, and make them look their best for attracting mates. Mutual preening is also a part of the courtship ritual in some species.

red-shouldered hawk stretch

Hawk wing stretch

red-shouldered hawk ready to poop

The forward lean…

red-shouldered hawk pooping

…and let it fly!

I suppose it is fitting that toward the end of my time with my hawk, I witnessed the other end of the meal process, its elimination. After stretching its wings, the hawk leaned forward, raised its tail, and let fly with a white mass of bird poop that shot downward with considerable force. I often see them do this right before taking flight (it makes sense to lighten the load before take-off). Maybe this was just a commentary on my presence (or perhaps current events), but I decided to take the hint and pack up my camera and tripod and let the hawk go about its business for the rest of the afternoon. But I will be back and will photograph it again, hoping to capture some more behavior of this regal “garden” bird.