Sunday, October 25, 2015

Cape May Point

Cape May Point, New Jersey, is always nice -- but I love it in October. The leaves are changing, the summer tourists are gone, and the hawks are migrating. Click on the photos to enlarge.
Today there were lots of hawks sitting in the trees around the Point, like this handsome Cooper's hawk. 
But one of the best moments of my long walk was when I paused by a creek to investigate a quiet smacking sound. It turned out to be this mallard duck voraciously munching duckweed. Apparently duckweed is beak-smacking good. 
The autumn leaves looked great. 
The rest was soothing scenery. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Cicada Killer

Here's an interesting insect from the summer of 2015 -- a big wasp I passed on a hot day in August. It's Specius specious, commonly called the eastern cicada killer or cicada hawk. 
At about an inch and a half long, the cicada killer is one of our larges wasps. Their huge size makes them look dangerous, but they are usually not aggressive and do not often sting us. They are solitary wasps that live alone; they lack the hive-defending sting-whatever-comes-close attitude of the yellowjackets they are sometimes mistaken for.

I saw this cicada the same day. It is also a really big insect, up to about two inches long.  Click on the photos to enlarge. 
It was not accident that I saw both of these on the same day; they are intimately associated. When a female cicada killer is ready to lay eggs she digs a nest in the ground. (Lawns, planting beds, and the edges of concrete slabs are favorite sites.) Then she goes out hunting cicadas.

She stings a cicada to paralyze it and then carries to her nest. The flight is laborious because the cicada is so big and heavy. The wasp will sometimes land along the way or stop to rest, holding onto the prey. Back at the nest, she pushes the cicada in and may go back to find more. After the nest is provisioned to her satisfaction she lays eggs on the paralyzed prey and seals the nest.

The eggs hatch into larvae that eat the fresh cicadas. Then, plump and satisfied, the larvae become pupae and spend the winter underground. They emerge from the nest the following summer, digging upward, and fly about eating flower nectar and plant sap until the time comes to breed, and hunt cicadas.

Check out how this wasp is resting with its front legs folded up to its shoulders. Maybe wasps do that all the time and I never noticed until I watched a giant. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Admiring a Great Blue Heron

I was admiring this photo of a great blue heron and its shadow when I remembered the poem below. 
Heron Rises from the Dark, Summer Pond  -- by Mary Oliver

So heavy is the long-necked, long-bodied heron,
always it is a surprise
when her smoke-colored wings

and she turns
from the thick water,
from the black sticks

of the summer pond,
and slowly
rises into the air
and is gone.

Then, not for the first or last time,
I take a deep breath
of happiness, and I think
how unlikely it is

that death is a hole in the ground,
how improbable that ascension is not possible,
though everything seems so inert, so nailed

back into itself --
the muskrat and his lumpy lodge,
the turtle,
the fallen gate.

And especially it is wonderful
that the summers are long
and the ponds so dark and so many,
and therefore it isn't a miracle

but the common thing,
this decision,
this trailing of the long legs in the water,
this opening up of the heavy body

into a new life: see how the sudden
gray-blue sheets of her wings
strive toward the wind; see how the clasp of nothing
takes her in.

Click on the photos to enlarge. 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Time for Cape May

The lighthouse at Cape May Point, New Jersey.  Click to enlarge. 
Hawks are migrating now and one of the best places to see them is Cape May, New Jersey. Lots of the birds flying down the Atlantic flyway get channeled into the southern tail of New Jersey and end up concentrated at Cape May Point. They often wait there for weather favorable for the flight across the Delaware Bay and on southwards. Tens of thousands of hawks fly through Cape May every year from September through November. On some late September and early October days the official count can be over 2000 birds.  
If you'd like help with identifying hawks overhead, there is no better place than the hawk watch platform in Cape May Point State Park where experts record every bird that flies over. There are also hawk banding demonstrations in the nearby pavilion. Click here for a link to the park's website with directions and a description of activities. Just head for the lighthouse and park in the lot. 
Often the overhead birds look like this, so take binoculars.
But sometimes they get pretty close. 
And sometimes you spot one in a tree. 
And there are lots of songbirds migrating, too, so there is something to watch between hawks. To me the songbirds always seem a bit nervous, what with all those songbird-eating raptors around. 
Not only that -- monarch butterflies are migrating now and they pass through Cape May, too, sometimes in large numbers. I've seen hundreds of them gathered on the same tree there. There is an active monarch migration research program that you can read more about by clicking here. Add in a walk on the beach and some saltwater taffy... how can you resist?