Sunday, September 27, 2015

It is the end of September already!

I am on vacation. Here's a poem by Sara Teasdale in my place: 

September Midnight

Lyric night of the lingering Indian Summer,
Shadowy fields that are scentless but full of singing, 
Never a bird, but the passionless chant of insects,
Ceaseless, insistent. 

The grasshopper's horn, and far-off, high in the maples,
The wheel of a locust leisurely grinding the silence 
Under a moon waning and worn, broken,
Tired with summer. 

Let me remember you, voices of little insects,
Weeds in the moonlight, fields that are tangled with asters,
Let me remember, soon will the winter be on us,
Snow-hushed and heavy.

Over my soul murmur your mute benediction, 
While I gaze, O fields that rest after harvest,
As those who part look long in the eyes they lean to,
Lest they forget them. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Insect Hunting

I spent part of today hovering around late summer flowers, looking for the last of summer's insects. 
I saw the lovely bumblebees pictured above. Click to enlarge. 
And a cool scape moth. 
And hoverflies in lots of colors and styles. This one was gleaming in the sun.  
There were a lot of milkweed bug nymphs out today, and a dozen more things that flitted by before I had a chance to photograph them. 
I was walking to another spot when something on the side of a rock landscape  feature caught my eye -- inside that red circle. 

It was this! It's a European paper wasp's nest with two male Polistes dominula wasps on duty.  (At least there were two outside, but I think others were watching from the shadows.) 
Curled orange antennae...  
I flipped this shot. They look like they are coming for me, right? 
Look at that face! 
And I noticed I was not alone. I saw two praying mantises searching the bushes right along with me. This is mantis number one -- waiting to catch an insect to eat. 
And here's mantis number two holding something it caught. It left off eating when I walked over to snap the picture, then it went back to  eating as I backed away. So -- the bushes are still full of insects. Summer is not quite over. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Hackensack River Ride

I took a pontoon boat ride on the Hackensack River in New Jersey! 
The Hackensack River flows through the marshy New Jersey Meadowlands where the Jets and Giants play in MetLife Stadium. It passes the spot where the American Dream Mall has been slowly rising for over a decade (they say it will have an indoor ski slope). Highways and train tracks cross the Hackensack -- the NJ turnpike, Route 3, Route 46, Interstate 80, the Pulaski Skyway, PATH trains, NJ Transit trains, and AMTRAK. The river has seen development come and go. Structures crumble on its banks, giant tanks of who-knows-what dot the shores, and there is an abundant legacy of old bridges reminiscent of Jules Verne machines.
Click on the photos to enlarge. 
The Hackensack River was severely polluted for a very long time and the surrounding marshes were dumping grounds. There are still health advisories against eating fish caught there. But there are fish -- and hopefully will be more along with other returning wildlife. The area is recovering from its industrial past through a combination of enforcement of the Clean Water Act, declining manufacturing, and the efforts of conservation groups.

Groups like the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, now merged into the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority or NJSEA; they've been working to restore and protect the Meadowlands environment since they were established in 1969. The place is finally getting some respect. You can go for a pontoon ride on the Hackensack with the NJSEA for a contribution of $15.00, and they will tell you all about it.
Click here to go to a NJSEA webpage that describes how to sign up for a boat ride. 
The boats have comfortable couch-like seats. A guide points out wildlife and historical highlights along the way. And they're friendly -- one of our two boat convoy went back to shore to pick up some late arrivals. We went up river and passed double-crested cormorants on pilings, then down past the sports complex and future great mall. Along the way we spotted great egrets, great blue herons, snowy egrets, mallard ducks, herring gulls, great black-backed gulls, and ring-billed gulls. We saw an osprey sitting on a transmission tower and an empty red-tailed hawk's nest in which a brood of chicks had been raised earlier this year.
A great egret. 
Cormorants, gulls, and an old tire. 
The Empire State Building and the skyline of Manhattan are visible in the distance. 
Even if we had not seen any wildlife, the trip would have been worth it for the unique view of industrial northern New Jersey and the interesting old bridges. There were swing bridges and vertical lift bridges -- some with massive counterweights and others with giant wheels to coil cables while hauling or swinging their midsections out of the way to let boats pass. The active bridges each have a small cabin in which a worker waits at all hours to let boats pass. They waved at us. Looking up, you can see but not hear trucks far overhead on highways that curve with unexpected grace into the distance. As we went under one of the rail bridges, a train thundered over our heads.
Train bridge. 
One tower of the Upper Hackensack Lift Bridge.  The entire center section of the bridge can be lifted to let boats pass. 
The giant wheels on top of the Upper Hackensack Lift Bridge tower. 
One bridge had this massive counterweight to help lift its moveable section
This rusty abandoned swing bridge sits in mid-river in the open position. 
Meadowlands landscape with gulls. 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Happy Labor Day

A pair of Northern pintail ducks -- like a mirror image -- with their reflections.  Click to enlarge. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015


"The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself." Henry Miller
Click on the photos to enlarge. 
There is a well camouflaged praying mantis nymph inside that circle. They rely on camouflage to hunt, sitting unseen until their insect prey come within striking range -- and then seizing them. It's pretty darned good camouflage. I wonder how many of these we pass without seeing them.  

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Laughing Gull Season is Almost Over

I keep noticing laughing gulls, Leucophaeus atricilla, around New York and thinking about how they will soon be gone for the year. Laughing gulls that breed in the northeast fly south for winter to the southern Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and to Central and South America.  I bet they are beginning to feel the pull. 

We are lucky to have laughing gulls at all; northeastern populations were nearly eliminated in the 19th century by plume hunters.           Click on the photos to enlarge. 
Breeding adult laughing gulls are easy to identify by their black hoods and bright red bills. And they sound like they are laughing when they call from beach or sky in loud descending notes, haa-haa-haa-haa; it's a sound that defines summer on the east coast. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Dog Day Cicadas

This empty cicada skin caught my eye. Click on the photos to enlarge. 
A few feet away on the same fence, I found this fresh looking  cicada.  It probably shed that skin a short time ago. It is one of the group of cicadas called dog day or annual cicadas that appear from June to late summer. This one is Neotibicen tibicen, called the morning cicada because the males sing early in the day. 
It is about 2 inches long. Notice the three ocelli or eyespots on its forehead, between the 2 large compound eyes. The famous periodical cicadas, the ones that emerge in 13 or 17 year cycles,  are smaller and have red eyes and emerge earlier in the year.
Here is a periodical cicada from the 2013 emergence, for comparison. Click here to read my eye-witness account of that event. 
Some annual cicadas appear  every year. But the life cycles of individuals take from 2 to 5 years, beginning as eggs laid in slits on tree branches. A nymph hatches, falls to the ground, and burrows down. It lives underground, sucking juices from plant roots, and grows. Eventually it reaches its last nymphal stage and claws its way upward to make an exit tunnel. It climbs onto something and sheds its skin, and emerges as an adult.

The males settle down and sings to attract females to mate. Different species of cicadas sing different songs and at different times of day or night. They sing with an organ called a timbal which is made of ribbed membranes that change shape with a click when pulled on by muscles. The clicks are magnified by various hollow chambers in the insect.

The dog days of summer were named by the ancients for the appearance of the dog star in the sky near dawn in July and August. We are in the dog days now; it's hot and humid, and the nights are loud with the songs of dog day cicadas.