Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Great Black Wasp

The great black wasp, Sphex pensylvanicus
The great black wasp is my absolutely favorite wasp -- for two reasons. First, it is beautiful: jet-black with blue and purple reflections in its wings. Second, it is thrilling to see one because they are so big. I always have a moment before I recognize it, when my subconscious tells me to run away. I know they are not aggressive but it takes a few seconds to overcome my instinct.

They are called great because they are so big -- up to almost an inch and a half long. I see them in my Brooklyn neighborhood from July through October. I've written about them before (click here to read an earlier blog) but I saw the one in the photos today and was reminded how much I like them and how pleased I am to see them every summer.

Click to enlarge. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Snow Geese

I don't remember ever feeling a chilly wind in the northeast in August until last night on my way home from work. August 15th! It reminded me of autumn, and that reminded me of snow geese.

My favorite place to see migrating snow geese is the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Galloway, New Jersey, where I took these pictures last year. The geese begin to arrive there in October. Their numbers peak from mid-November to med-December when the flocks are so large that the water and the sky are often white with them and the place is noisy with the sounds of honking geese.
Snow geese, Chen caerulescens. Click to enlarge.
Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
The bird on the left is wearing a collar band. It must be part of a scientific tracking study. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Tufted Ducks

A pair of tufted ducks, Aythya fuligula, male left and female right. 
I photographed this pair of tufted ducks in a pond in a park in London where they are common. The male's eyes are bright yellow, his beak is blue with a black tip, and he has a conspicuous tuft of feathers on the back of his head from which the species gets its common name. Breeding season has passed and this male is changing into eclipse plumage; in a few weeks his white flanks will be brown. When breeding, his dark back and breast are black, his head has an even brighter purple and green gloss, and his white flanks are brilliant.

The female tufted duck is brown with yellow eyes and a dark bill. 
Tufted ducks are common throughout Eurasia. In winter, they sometimes show up on either coast of the United States and Canada. Rare bird alerts go out and birdwatchers rush to see them and check them off their life lists.

Click to enlarge.


"... ducks are soothy things

And lovely on the lake
When the sunlight draws
Thereon their pictures dim
In colors cool..."

from the poem DUCKS by 
Frederic William Harvey



Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Fly in Bee's Clothing

The robber fly, Laphria flavicollis. Click to enlarge.
Looks like a bee, doesn't it? It's not.

Bees have two pairs of wings. See the yellow ball-on-a-stick just in front of the right wing? That's called a haltere organ; there is another one on the other side. Halteres are the modified remnants of an ancestral pair of wings. All flies have halteres but they are easier to see on big flies like this one that's just over half an inch long.

The antennae are all wrong, too. Look at the real bumblebee below for comparison. And, although this insect looks superficially like a bumblebee, it is sitting on a leaf. That's an unlikely pose for a bumblebee -- they rarely sit still for long.

Robber flies are predators that prey on insects -- beetles, flies, BEES, and even big things like damselflies. They can catch flying prey in the air, snatch them up, and carry them away to eat. Robber flies have strong beaks with piercing mouthparts that they jab into prey. They inject digesting enzymes that liquify the victim's insides. Then the fly drinks them up through its straw-like mouth.

And what is the point of looking like a bee? Maybe it puts bees off their guard and helps the robber flies catch dinner.
This is a bumblebee. If you see what seems to be a bumblebee sitting on a leaf, take a closer look. It might turn out to be a bee-like robber fly! Click to enlarge.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Bee meets Beetle


A Japanese beetle and a brown-belted bumblebee on milkweed flowers. The bee is touching the beetle with a foot; they both drew back a second later. Click to enlarge.


"Summer afternoon -- summer afternoon; 
to me those have always been 
the two most beautiful words in the English language." 
Henry James

Sunday, July 20, 2014

East River Terns

In summer it is easy to spot slender aerodynamic terns diving head first into the East River to catch small fish. Common terns, Sterna hirundo, and Forster's terns, Sterna forsteri, are both likely sightings.

This Forster's tern is resting on the Brooklyn shore of the East River between dives. Click to enlarge. 
This is a common tern. The differences between common and Forster's terns are subtle and confuse many birdwatchers. Common terns have darker backs, bills more red than orange, and a less extensive black area at the tip of the bill. The feathers of the folded wings are noticeably darker.  



Tern Joke Time!

A German taxidermist walks into a sausage store, places his order, but then notices he has forgotten his wallet. All he has with him is a stuffed bird, which he offers in payment. The storekeeper agrees to take a tern for the wurst.


Why do terns fly in flocks?
Because one good tern deserves another!



A flock of terns flew over a marijuana club in Denver.
No tern was left unstoned!


A deckhand on the night shift of a cruise ship was assigned to clean mud from the links of an anchor chain. A big broom was the perfect tool to sweep away the mud, but a little tame bird kept landing on the broom and getting in the way. The deckhand repeatedly caught the bird and tossed it into the air but it came back again and again. The next morning the captain was shocked to see that nothing had been accomplished. “Not my fault,” the deckhand said, “I tossed a tern all night but couldn’t sweep a link!”


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Two Kinds of Coots

I was in London last week for a conference. My hotel was near Kensington Gardens, one of London's Royal Parks. I walked all over the gardens, saw the famous statue of Peter Pan, and sat by a pond watching the royal waterfowl. There were mute swans, tufted ducks, Egyptian geese, moorhens, great crested grebes, great blue herons, and abundant Eurasian coots.

Eurasian coot adult, Fulica atra. Click to enlarge. 
A Eurasian coot chick strikes the same pose. 
This is our local version -- the American coot, Fulica americana. Note the different features on the face. Ours has marks at the tip of the beak and on the forehead. 
And here is Peter Pan...