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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Milkweed Tussock Moth Caterpillar

I was looking at milkweed tussock moth caterpillars, Euchaetes egle, last week as they were eating milkweed leaves. This is the other caterpillar commonly found on milkweeds, in addition to the monarch butterfly caterpillar. Click to enlarge.
There were a lot of them, some in groups, eating side by side and they had eaten most of the foliage from quite a few plants in the patch. As I watched, I reached out to turn over a leaf to get a better look at whatever was under there -- part of a caterpillar was sticking out. I got a big surprise when three or four of them jumped into the air simultaneously; they seemed to spread out all their tufts so they looked like big spiders as they fell into the grass (or so my mind filled in). Then they scrambled into the brush very quickly for caterpillars. I've handled more insects than many people and don't think of myself as squeamish but these guys really made me jump. Great evasive maneuver caterpillars! If I had been trying to catch you, you foiled me and lived to eat milkweed another day!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Thread-waisted Wasp

Here's a wasp that seems to give new meaning to the term thread-waisted. I saw this fine example of Eremnophila aureonatata while it was sipping nectar from a summersweet blossom (Clethra ainifolia) in a park in southern New Jersey. It's a solitary wasp, and a hunter at times. When it is time to reproduce, females of this species prepare a burrow for their eggs and then capture and sting a caterpillar, paralyzing it. You can sometimes see one dragging a fat caterpillar across the ground. The unfortunate caterpillar gets stuffed into the nest for the larvae to feed upon as they grow. Unlucky caterpillar. Beautiful wasp.
Click to enlarge.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Rabbit News

This week's post is an update from the suburbs of South Jersey near Philadelphia. There are lots of rabbits here, hopping on lawns and eating grass. Click to enlarge.
Two days ago I noticed a bare spot on a lawn, bare soil with a shallow hole at one end, and I wondered what it was. The next day I saw a rabbit in that spot with its head in the hole. As I watched, the rabbit hopped around the lawn and gathered mouthful after mouthful of dry grass, which it carried to the spot and arranged to its liking. A nest!
It's a nest that is very hard to see, even if you know it's there. In this photo it is in the lower patch of sunlight.
Note the nicely constructed grass arch over the doorway. Yesterday there was just grass inside. I cautiously inserted a finger today and felt a soft lining of fur. I've read that female rabbits build their nests a few days to a few hours before giving birth and that adding the fur lining is the last step. Mother rabbits don't sit on their nests; they visit to nurse the babies in the morning and evening. So I can peek during the day without disturbing. Watch this spot. Hopefully there will be baby bunny photos in a few weeks.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Barn Swallows

The barn swallow is one of those simultaneously common yet elusive birds that I see all the time but rarely photograph because they never seem to sit still. They fly by me at high speed doing aerial acrobatics as they catch insects in the air; I see them swooping along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade all through the summer. But yesterday I was lucky enough to stumble upon a nest. The bird above is a youngster that has recently left is nest (nearby) to sit under an eave. Click to enlarge.

It is waiting for a parent to show up with food. Opening its gape to beg reveals a bright yellow target for the parent.
In a flash of wings, an adult arrived and delivered something.
At least one sibling was still in the nearby nest. Barn swallows make their nests out of dabs of mud and line the interior with grass and feathers.
The bird in the nest got a food delivery, too.
Here's an adult trying to take a rest; notice its adult beak.
But eave bird got fidgety and started begging.
And made it clear it was still hungry.
And shortly got another tasty delivery.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Bobwhite!

I usually hear bobwhites but don't see them, or catch a glimpse of a boldly patterned head as the shy bird disappears in grass. The call is an unmistakable loud whistled "bob-white!" that rises in pitch on the second syllable. But during a recent visit to Cape May Point State Park I saw this unusually bold male above and equally unselfconscious female below.      Click to enlarge.
Both birds were uncharacteristically nonchalant about nearby humans and did not seem to mind me photographing them. One of the park employees told me that the bobwhites had been around for a few days, sitting on the hawkwatch platform railings and practically posing for selfies with delighted park visitors.
The northern bobwhite, also called the Virginia quail or bobwhite quail, Colinus virginianus, has experienced steep population decline across its range and is considered to be Near Threatened. For the past three years, the New Jersey Audubon Society has released 80 northern bobwhites each year in southern New Jersey as part of a reintroduction program that also includes habitat improvement.  I don't know if the pair at Cape May Point have anything to do with that program, but they are a lovely addition to an already great park. I hope they thrive there and become a permanent attraction.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Assassin!

I was poking around in the leaves at Cape May Point State Park last week and I found this saucy wheel bug nymph, Arilus cristatus. Click to enlarge.
It's an immature form of the fine adult wheel bug pictured above. See that long sharp beak at its mouth? Wheel bugs are predators of other insects. They feed by piercing prey with their beaks, injecting salivary fluids that dissolve the victim's insides, and then sucking them up. Wheel bugs belong to an insect family known commonly as the assassin bugs. Nothing makes my day like finding a wheel bug.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Happy Fourth of July!




No blog this week -- just a couple of red, white, and blue local birds: northern cardinal, great egret, and blue jay. Have a great holiday! Click to enlarge. 


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Harvestman

I passed this lovely long legged creature while I was walking in Boundary Creek Park in Moorestown, New Jersey. Click on the photo to enlarge it. Years ago I would have thought it was a tremendously big spider; it was about 4 or 5 inches from leg tip to leg tip. But it's not a spider. It is a member of the large arachnid order Opiliones, usually called by the common names of harvestman or harvester, daddy-longlegs or granddaddy-longlegs. The opilionids don't spin silk and don't make webs. They don't make venom. Their bodies are not divided into 2 segments with a "waist" like spiders. Many but not all of the thousands of described species of harvestmen have these extremely long slender legs. I always find them like this, sitting motionless upon leaves, possibly waiting for unsuspecting prey like an aphid, mite, caterpillar, or whatnot to stroll past, but maybe just taking in the summer day.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Willet

Shorebird identification can be challenging for new bird watchers. But one of the shorebirds, the long-legged pigeon-sized willet, Tringa semipalmata, helps out by obligingly shouting its name "Pill Will Willet! Pill Will Willet!" and then spreading its wings to reveal white markings that differentiate it from all others. I cannot tell you how many times I've asked "Is that a willet?" to have the question answered by the bird itself with a call and a wing flash. Click to enlarge.
The willet is my pick for a father's day bird because, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, although both willet parents share the task of incubating eggs, only male willets spend their nights on the nest. Happy Father's Day to everybody!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Black Skimmers

Black skimmer couples, Rynchops niger, are nesting now on New Jersey beaches. Sandy beaches with light vegetation like the one pictured are among their favorite places to nest. The nest is just a scrape in the sand. Humans also like beaches like this and human disturbance combined with natural predation, habitat degradation, and flooding has led to these unique birds being endangered in New Jersey. I took the picture from farther away than it looks with a telephoto lens and tried not to seem aggressive. They ignored me so I think I was successful. Click to enlarge.
Adult black skimmers have a wingspan up to about 50 inches. The huge sleek bird feeds by flying  low over water with its beak open, the lower mandible cutting through the surface of the water and closing when it encounters a fish. (Click here to see it on YouTube.) But the thing I like most about them is the way they rest on the beach. Click on the photo above to enlarge; the four birds in the center are lying prone on the sand like a row of downed bowling pins. There is nothing average about a black skimmer.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Peacock Fly!

I was walking in Long Bridge Park in Burlington County, New Jersey, the other day. There are lots of wooden walkways over marshy spots on the trails. Whenever I walk on nature trail boardwalks like that I scan the handrails because they are good places to find insects basking in the sun and caterpillars that have fallen from trees. I was not disappointed. Stopping to investigate a tiny fly I saw the critter pictured above -- a peacock fly with its wings raised over its back, from which it gets its common name. Click to enlarge.
The peacock fly is more formally Callopistromyia annulipes of the picture-winged fly family Ulidiidae. They are found across North America. Both genders commonly strut with their wings up like this and several other individuals were near this one. Being only about the size of fruit flies they are easy to overlook and I had never seen one before.
This all reminds me of the last spectacular thing I found on the handrail of a nature trail: the rarely seen holy grail of caterpillars, a spun glass caterpillar, Isochaetes beutenmueller. It was on a wooden railing near the River Styx in Mammoth Cave Park in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. Sometimes it pays to keep your eyes down. 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Happy Memorial Day!

Beverly National Cemetery in Beverly, New Jersey. Click to enlarge.
Sleep the sleep that knows not waking, 
Dream of battled fields no more.  
 
from Soldier Rest! Thy Warfare o'er
by Sir Walter Scott

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Lunch With the Crow

I've always had trouble photographing crows. They see me coming and despite my attempts to approach casually, they always pick up and leave before I get within snapping distance. So I was ignoring a crow one blue morning a few weeks ago as I walked to the edge of Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park. I passed the lovely wildflower meadow on Pier 6 pictured here. The crow was calling from a high perch as I reached my favorite bench. Click to enlarge.
I was not even going to try to take that crow's picture. I unwrapped the lox cream cheese bagel I'd brought for lunch.
Then I settled in to watch the boat traffic on the East River; here's a nice red tug heading north past lower Manhattan.
The next thing I knew, that crow had landed really close and was looking at me. After a minute it came closer. I thought briefly of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds before realizing it was looking at the bagel on the bench beside me.
It turns out crows really like lox cream cheese bagels.
And they like to keep clean. Between bites, it flew to a fence railing and wiped the cream cheese off its beak.
Last seen flying toward Governor's Island. Something tells me he's going to become a regular lunch companion at Pier 6.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Coming Soon

I'm going to be in places without Internet service for a week or two, so I'm posting a preview of coming attractions. This crow is the subject of an upcoming blog -- maybe this Sunday but possibly the next. 
The story will also feature this delicious lox cream cheese bagel. 
And be set against the lovely background of Brooklyn Bridge Park on Pier 6.
Click to enlarge and stay tuned. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Spring Flowers

"People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us." Iris Murdoch 
"Spring has returned. The Earth is like a child that knows poems by heart."
Rainer Maria  Rilke 
"The flower is the poetry of reproduction." Jean Giraudoux. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

April

A song sparrow, Melospiza melodia, getting its feathers ruffled by the wind. For comfort about how cold and rainy it's been this month, a Portuguese proverb: A cold and moist April fills the cellar and fattens the cow