Sunday, December 25, 2011

A hawk for the holidays!

Buteo jamaicensis -- Click on the picture to enlarge. 
A young red-tailed hawk has moved into Cadman Plaza Park in Brooklyn Heights, close enough to my home that it is almost a backyard bird. One of my readers has been watching it for a few weeks and pointed it out to me. You can see where the hawk has been perching by clicking here. Thanks Eric! I hope the hawk stays.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

It's Mallard Courtship Time!

The temperature was below freezing in Brooklyn last night for the first time since last winter. This morning a cold wind is shaking dry leaves on trees outside my window. Bird courtship is not the first thing that comes to mind. But if you dress warmly and go to the local park pond you will find male mallard ducks in shiny breeding plumage. They are courting females now!
The male mallard has an iridescent green head, a narrow white neck ring, a chestnut-brown breast, a black rump, light gray under-parts, and a white-bordered violet-blue speculum (the brightly colored stripe near the trailing edge of the wing). His bill is greenish yellow. The female is light mottled brown overall with a darker brown line through the eye, a dark brown streak on the crown, and an orange bill splotched with black. Males and females have dark eyes and orange legs and feet. They are about two feet long, have wings that open to about three feet, and weigh a few pounds.

Mallards begin choosing mates and forming couples as early as September and will keep it up all winter until it is time to lay eggs in spring. Groups of males gather around females and perform ritualized behaviors competitively, showing off their feathers and fitness, sometimes performing the same moves simultaneously or sequentially.

Click here to see a video of some of what they do. In the video, one male rises from the water arching his neck in a display called the grunt-whistle (he makes distinctive sounds with the posture). Two ducks in the upper right simultaneously dip their bills and raise their tails in the down-up display. Another performs the sexy tail-shake. A little brown female swims into the lower right of the picture at the end of the clip; it's all for her.

The movements are performed in just a few seconds, so knowing what to look for makes it easier to see. Here’s a link to an old scientific publication that contains drawings of eight mallard displays --  click here and then scroll down to the illustrations. A duck will often perform a preliminary head-shake or tail-shake before doing one of the more elaborate displays. Good luck peeking in on mallard sex lives!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Winter Mockingbirds

In June I wrote about a mockingbird that sang in my garden. You can see that story by clicking here. That bird was impossible to ignore as he persistently delivered loud and varied songs from a regular round of perches on each of the garden lights, a fence post, a conspicuous branch, and the antenna on top of the building. The high perches gave the singer a good view of this garden territory.

He sang in the shadow of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, competing with its constant and equally vigorous chorus of traffic noise. He and his mate raised one chick that I got a glimpse of, and maybe more that I did not see.
The northern mockingbird is a medium sized, pale grey bird, eight to ten inches long, whitish below, with a thin black bill and two wide white wing bars across each wing that flash when the bird flies. 

Today I watched an adult mockingbird move warily through the red-berried broadleaf evergreen shrub outside my window. The bird moved silently. Mockingbirds are still here, but they are not singing. They're in winter mode. Mockingbirds don't migrate; they will stay put through cold winters as far north as southern Canada.

Instead of stalking the earthworms and insects of summer, they have switched to eating dried fruits and berries. Ornamental shrubs, especially multiflora rose, provide winter fruit for them too. The birds are possessive about their shrubs. Mockingbirds are among the few birds that defend a winter territory, sometimes as a couple. Like defending a breeding territory in spring, they defend their food in winter, chasing away robins, jays, and anyone else who covets winter fruit. My condo building's garden seems to be a good spot for mockingbirds year round.

If you are giving out birdseed this winter, consider adding a few grapes and an occasional opened pomegranate for the mockingbirds -- for the sake of summer songs that can be heard above New York City traffic.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Coot Shenanigans!

The lovely tundra swan, Cygnus columbianus
The crafty Amercan coot, Fullica americana
Tundra swans breed across far northern North America and migrate south to spend the winter in big flocks along both coasts. Coots are opportunistic kleptoparasites -- they steal when it is worth their while.

A few of each were in the East Pool of the Edwin Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Oceanville, NJ, when I visited at the end of November. Tundra swans are only occasionally seen there.

This swan is about to get mugged. 
One of the swans was feeding, submerging its long neck to bring vegetation up from the bottom of the shallow pool. The moment it went under, the coots rushed in to pick up bits of free food that floated up. And when the swan resurfaced, they grabbed at the food in its bill. The swan pecked at them, but it was three against one, and it ended up providing lunch for four that day.

Quick, while he's not looking! 

The Forsythe Refuge is on the Atlantic Flyway and it is always full of interesting birds. It is about an hour’s drive from Philadelphia, two from New York City, and 15 minutes from Atlantic City.

P.S. This is a mute swan, Cygnus olor. Notice the orange bill with black knob -- it is not the swan I am talking about. I have never seen coots hassle mute swans. But I have seen mute swans chase other birds and fight viciously with each other -- they are tough customers. I wonder if coots ever pick on them?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

I saw this eastern gray squirrel eating acorns in a park in Cape May County, New Jersey. Click on the photo to get a closer look at the pile of shell bits below and the pieces flying through the air! And check out the notch in his right ear -- squirrel fight? 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Ponies and Vultures

I'm enjoying a short vacation in Maryland near Assateague Island. Firstly, although they are not urban, here are a few pictures I took yesterday of the famous wild ponies at Assateague National Seashore.

And secondly, geez there are a lot of vultures around here! I'm accustomed to seeing vultures circling high overhead. It is surprising to me, though locally common, to see turkey vultures and black vultures up close sitting in fields, dining on roadkill, and resting on the rooftops. For example...

A pair of American Black Vultures, Coragyps atratus

Click to enlarge any of the photos. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Saint John's White Peacock

I visited the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on the Upper West Side of Manhattan this week. They started building this in the 1800s. It's not finished yet. Stone masons tap away there at a medieval pace.

On the way, I passed the famous restaurant at the corner of 112th and Broadway that was used for external shots of the cafe in the 1990s sitcom, Seinfeld. 
After an hour in the cathedral, I took a walk in the churchyard. It's a good place for a quiet stroll.
But New York is unpredictable and it still surprises me sometimes, even though I have lived here for more than 20 years. I looked up from my thoughts and saw a white peacock! Here's a picture to prove it... click on it for a closer look.

I subsequently found that peafowl have lived on the grounds at Saint John the Divine for decades. They were gifts. They have a heated shelter where they are regularly fed. Although I did not see them, two others of the more common blue and green kind live there too.

They stay near the church, though the gates are open and nothing visible keeps them from strolling down Amsterdam Avenue. They seem to know that they are church peacocks.

The peacock is an old Christian symbol of resurrection, possibly because it annually molts and re-grows its showy feathers. Peacock feathers are added to church decorations at Easter season, and a few peacocks show up in Christmas nativity scenes.

Take it from me. When you encounter an unexpected white peacock anywhere in Manhattan, it seems like a miracle.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A bubble-blowing fly

Click on this photo to enlarge it. That fly is blowing a bubble! If you look closely at a lot of flies (like I do) you may find one doing this.

A bubble-blowing fly sits still as if preoccupied. It exudes a drop of liquid from the mouth and then sucks it back in. Then it does it again, and again, and again. The bubbles range from clear to opaque, but usually one fly in a single sitting makes just one kind. Various species of flies do this, as well as bees, wasps, and lacewings.

Why? It is not clearly understood and there have been lots of suggestions including cooling by evaporation, heating by solar gain, being sick, scaring away attackers, cleaning their mouthparts, and aerating or concentrating liquid food.

Scientists have investigated bubble-blowing in apple maggot flies. In experiments, flies were given dissolved food in various concentrations. After eating dilute food the flies broke off to sit quietly and "bubble." Then they returned to feeding. And then they stopped to bubble some more. The scientists suggested that bubbling was a way for flies engorged with dilute food to eliminate some water through evaporation, allowing them to go back and eat more. But even when you know what they are doing, it's still pretty weird.

God in his wisdom made the fly
And then forgot to tell us why
-- The Fly by Ogden Nash

Sunday, October 30, 2011


This is a funnel-web-weaving spider in the family Agelenopsis. 

The Agelenopsis spiders do not weave orb-shaped webs of the sort Charlotte lived in. Nor do they weave cobwebs of the kind that drape Halloween houses.

This spider's web is made from sheets of non-sticky silk that are invisibly fine; a spider moving about in the web appears to be walking in the air. The web in the photo is made temporarily visible by drops of morning dew and fallen bits of plant debris. Click the photo for a closer look.

The web narrows at one end into a funnel-shaped hole. The spider typically sits in the funnel and waits for prey. When something walks across the wide end of the funnel, the spider feels the vibrations and rushes out.

This is one fast-moving spider! I touched the web and the spider left so quickly that it seemed to disappear. But if I had been a small insect, I would have been just as quickly bitten and taken down into the funnel for a feast.

Very spooky!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Blue-faced Meadowhawk Dragonfly

The blue-faced meadowhawk dragonfly, Sympetrum ambiguum. 
I was walking in a field at Higbee Beach near Cape May New Jersey one day last week. The place was hopping with little red dragonflies like the one in the photo; it's only about an inch and a half long. There were so many that it seemed like it would be easy to sneak up on one and snap a close-up, but, no matter how stealthy I was, every one of them flew away when I came within three feet.

Click on the photo to take a closer look at the blue-faced meadowhawk. It has a blue-green face, tan and gray thorax, and tan legs. Females and younger males have brown abdomens. Mature males, like the individual pictured,  have flashy black-banded red abdomens.

I felt distinctly earthbound and drab as I watched him in the bright October sun where, as Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote of another dragonfly almost 200 years ago, "Thro' crofts and pastures wet with dew, A living flash of light he flew."

Sunday, October 16, 2011


I am on vacation and, remarkably, away from an easy internet connection. Just enough time to upload a photo of handsome turtles from the last wifi cafe -- and then on into the wilderness.
Red-eared sliders, Trachemys scripta, in the Central Park Pond. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

As summer barbecues come to an end...

Corn earworm moths, Heliothus zea
Ever pull the husk off an ear of corn and find a caterpillar in there eating the kernels? They're called corn earworms. If you have ever wondered what they look like when they grow up, see above -- the corn earworm moth. Click on the photo for a closer look at those big green eyes!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Milkweed World

Stop and look at a milkweed plant this week and you may see a lot of interesting and colorful insects.

The monarch butterfly caterpillar, Danaus plexippus, is a milkweed specialist that eats nothing else.  

Monarch caterpillars come in five sizes. Each size is a different stage called an instar. Successive instars shed their skins and grow larger in abrupt steps. 
Check the area around milkweed plants carefully and you may find a monarch butterfly chrysalis like this. I saw a caterpillar curling up into a J shape in this spot under a fence rail yesterday. When I returned today it looked like this. A beautiful orange adult will emerge from the pearly green structure in about two weeks. 

Milkweed bugs, Oncopeltus fasciatus, suck milkweed sap; they have piercing, sucking mouthparts that are like sharp straws. These three milkweed bugs are warming up on a metal railing in a milkweed patch. The little guy is an immature stage called a nymph.
This milkweed tussock caterpillar, Euchaetes egle, will grow up to become a relatively unremarkable small brown moth. 
This is a yellow milkweed aphid, also called the oleander aphid. Aphids suck plant juices for nourishment. This adult is about a tenth of an inch long; you would have to line up a few dozen of them to make a line as long as their scientific name -- Aphis nerii boyer de Fonscoblombe.

Aphid populations grow quickly and can completely cover the stems and leaves of a plant. Tiny wasps help keep them in check. Wasps attack aphids by piercing and laying eggs inside them! The two brown aphids on the pod on the right of this photo are victims of wasp attacks; they are called mummies. Wasp larvae dine on the interiors of host aphids and eventually emerge as adults. 

Adult ladybugs like to eat aphids. (Look out little yellow guys!)
This is the ferocious larval stage of a ladybug sitting on a milkweed leaf. It eats aphids too. It came to the right place! 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Grasshopper hunter!

Click on the photo above to enlarge it. You will see that the red and black wasp is carrying a grasshopper about twice its size. The wasp seems perfectly built for this job; its mandibles hold the grasshopper's antennae and its two pairs of front legs are wrapped around the grasshopper as if in an embrace. The wasp's rear legs are long enough to straddle the grasshopper and keep walking.

Why would a wasp carry a grasshopper, you might ask? And why is the much larger grasshopper putting up with this? The unfortunate grasshopper is about to become a stored food supply for the wasp's future offspring. Mother wasp has probably already delivered a few paralyzing stings. She will carry the grasshopper to a nice sandy spot, dig a hole, drag the grasshopper underground, lay an egg on it, and then refill the hole. When the egg hatches the newborn wasp larva will be sitting on the delicious grasshopper that its mother caught for it.

It's a Prionyx wasp. They raise their babies on a strict grasshopper-only diet. The drama above occurred last September on a sandy path in the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Oceanville, New Jersey. This September I saw a lot more of them by a parking lot at the foot of the Verrazano Bridge to Assateague Island, Mayland. The  one pictured below was digging a hole in the sandy soil below a row of bushes at the edge of the parking lot. There were about a dozen wasps nearby, all digging holes or dragging grasshoppers from the leaves under the bushes to the sandy strip of waiting holes.

The bushes above were full of unsuspecting grasshoppers, flying and jumping -- a buffet for Prionyx wasps!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Insect Photos on Display in Brooklyn Bridge Park

The NYCSE center in Brooklyn Bridge Park is opening today! NYCSE is pronounced NICE and it stands for the New York Center for Sustainable Energy -- a nonprofit institution for education and research about sustainable energy. (Click here to read more about it.)

Some of my photos of the insects that live in the park are on display for the opening and will be there through next Saturday.

There will be an informal reception from 5:30 to 7:00. Stop in and see the solar powered electric vehicle charging station -- and get a close-up look at the cool insects that live along the fence right across the path from it!

Click here to read more about it.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Twelve-spotted Skimmer Dragonfly

The dragonfly in the picture is a mature male 12-spotted skimmer, Libellula pulchella. Its body is about two inches long and its wingspan is about three inches. Females and new males are a little less spectacular with 12 dark spots but no white ones; the male's white spots develop over time. The 12-spotted skimmer is common in summer throughout the United States and southern Canada.

It is sometimes called the ten-spotted skimmer or just the ten-spot, which is the number you arrive at if you count the mark that spans the body on each set of wings as one spot instead of two.

Whatever you call it, it's a good summer sighting. This one was perched by the pond in Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City. We can conclude that it is not too sensitive to human activity or noise. Like other dragonflies, the 12-spot eats insects. I am particularly thankful for its voracious appetite for mosquitoes. It devours them in its adult form AND when it is an aquatic larva. It is a mosquito's worst nightmare -- first aquatic dragonfly larvae zip around the pond eating mosquito larvae and pupae and then, just when the adult mosquitoes get out of the pond, along comes a hungry adult 12-spotted skimmer!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Happy Labor Day!

Kids are not the only ones looking forward to the first day of school. During the academic year the starlings in my neighborhood enjoy school lunch leftovers at Brooklyn elementary school PS8. Food falls on the sidewalk when the trash goes out to the curb. Mmmm free apples!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Carpenter Bee and the Tiger Bee Fly

The eastern carpenter bee is about an inch long, with a shiny black hairless abdomen that distinguishes it from bumblebees. 

It's no coincidence that I find carpenter bees and tiger bee flies in the local park. 

Carpenter bees are solitary bees, which means that they don't live in hives like the social honeybees that we normally picture when we think of bees. They are called carpenter bees because they make tunnels in wood. Typically, a female carpenter bee uses her strong jaws to evacuate a tunnel in weathered unpainted wood. She makes a round hole about one-half inch in diameter, and digs in as deep as ten inches. Then she goes to forage for pollen and nectar. When she returns, she shapes pollen into balls that we call beebread. She places a ball of beebread at the end of the tunnel and lays a single egg on it, and then she seals it off with a wall of chewed wood pulp. She provisions six to ten chambers in a row, each with a single egg and a ball of food. When the eggs hatch into larvae, they eat beebread until they become pupae. 

A carpenter bee near the entrance to a tunnel nest. 

New adults emerge at the end of summer, chewing through the soft chamber walls. They do not mate just then; they feed on pollen and nectar and return to spend a quiet winter in the tunnels. The next spring they come out to mate, and the cycle begins again. There is usually just one generation a year, except in warm southern places. They may make nests in human structures -- sheds, porches, roof overhangs, even outdoor furniture -- but they rarely cause anything more than cosmetic damage except when their nests are expanded extensively through repeated use. 

I often see carpenter bees foraging in the flowers at Brooklyn Bridge Park by the East River in New York City. But what's with this tiger bee fly?

The tiger bee fly, Xenox tigrinus, seems to have more than its share of names. Tiger is for the patterned wings. Fly  because it's a fly. Bee because it preys on bees. 

Tiger bee flies hunt for carpenter bees! When a female tiger bee fly locates a carpenter bee nest she may lay eggs at the entrance. The eggs hatch into larvae that find the carpenter bees within. Tiger bee fly larvae usually wait until their prey is in the helpless pupal state, and then they eat it. Notice that the tiger bee fly in the picture is visiting the kind of untreated unpainted wooden post that carpenter bees like to tunnel in. 

It reminds me of this nursery rhyme: 

Big fleas have little fleas, 
Upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, 
And so, ad infinitum.

And the great fleas, themselves, in turn
Have greater fleas to go on;
While these again have greater still,
And greater still, and so on. 

See the light colored patch on this carpenter bee's face? That's how you can tell it's a male -- females don't have that mark. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Japanese beetle and the blue-winged wasp

The rose borders around the amphitheater in Brooklyn Bridge Park are relatively new -- I think they were planted last summer. But already Japanese beetles are abundant there. Japanese beetles love to eat roses. And after a meal of petals they meet and mate.

A Japanese beetle couple in the Brooklyn Bridge Park roses. 
Adult Japanese beetles are shiny metallic green, oval, convex, and about one-half inch long with bronze-colored wings. Five pairs of white hair tufts project from under the wing covers on each side of the body and another pair decorate the rear end of the abdomen.

The Japanese beetle, Popillia japonica. Pretty! 

The first report of Japanese beetles in the United States was from a plant nursery in New Jersey in 1916. The insects quickly spread to the wild and we have been trying to eradicate them ever since. Adult Japanese beetles eat flowers, vegetable crops, fruit trees, and ornamental plants. They are famous for eating the soft flesh of leaves from between the veins and leaving behind leaf skeletons. They eat soft rose petals completely. As if that were not bad enough, the larval stage lives in the soil and eats grass roots, damaging lawns. A Japanese beetle larva is a white worm-like "grub" that is about an inch long at maturity; it has three pairs of tiny legs and a round brown head.

After mating, a female Japanese beetle lays eggs in the soil. She lands on the ground and digs a burrow a few inches deep. She lays a few eggs and then she feeds and lays intermittently until she has ensconced a few dozen eggs in the soil. The eggs hatch into larvae by midsummer. The larvae burrow around underground, eating grass roots. When cold weather comes the larvae dig deep in the soil to spend the winter inactive far below the surface. In spring they burrow back up to root level and eat and eat and eat. After a brief pupal stage they emerge as adults and dig themselves out of the ground.

The Japanese beetle life cycle takes a year. Ten months of that are spent underground. Summer is their time to shine; they have just two adult summer months to fly in the sunlight and eat roses.

But Japanese beetles are not the only insects that have moved into the new park. I found the blue-winged wasp pictured below sipping nectar from goldenrod flowers in the park's water garden. The blue-winged wasp in about an inch long. Its head, antennae, and legs are black. Most of its abdomen is reddish brown. Two bright yellow spots on the upper surface of the abdomen make it easy to identify.

The blue-winged wasp, Scolia dubia
Female blue-winged wasps take breaks from sipping nectar to fly low over grass. They search for beetle grubs. They love Japanese beetles. The wasp burrows into the soil to find them. (Not surprisingly, they are sometimes called digger wasps.) The wasp will sting a captured grub to paralyze it. Then she digs deeper, constructs a little cell, lays an egg right on the unlucky grub, and departs. When the wasp egg hatches into a larva it will feast on the beetle grub its mother left for it. The wasp larva grows, eating grub, and eventually makes a cocoon right inside the grub's corpse where it spends the winter. Ghoulish, eh? The new wasp emerges as an adult in spring or summer, just about when the Japanese beetle grubs are beginning to fatten up.

This is almost enough to make me stop complaining about mosquito bites -- obviously some species have much bigger insect problems!

Blue iridescent reflections give the blue-winged wasp its common name.