Herps and Odes, Dragons and Toads

Have you seen any herps lately? Not sure? How about odes? I’m sure you have, they’re hard to miss right  now. I’ve seen tons of them, but if you’d asked me those questions a couple years ago I wouldn’t have had a clue what you were talking about. As I know now, “herps” is a term for reptiles and amphibians; “odes” is short for odonata, the dragonflies and damselflies.

Mid-July is a rather quiet time in the world of birdwatching: the activity of migration is over, there’s not as much boisterous singing to attract mates, and everybody is either sitting on a nest or busily raising young. So to celebrate these fun words — and to give me an excuse to stay inside where it’s relatively cool — I thought I’d show you some of the herps and odes I’ve seen lately.

Ebony Jewelwings - damselflies (800x533)I almost deleted this first picture because it wasn’t in focus, but then I realized it was still interesting. These are mostly Ebony Jewelwing damselflies (and one other type I’ll show you better below). They were swarming over the river at Wolcott Mill Metropark on a recent visit and I sat on a rock in the shade to snap a few photos of the aerial symphony they were creating. Isn’t the blurred background almost like an Impressionist painting? I love it.

Since I’m a newbie at identifying dragon- and damselflies, I sat down with my “Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Dragonflies” to put names to the ones I saw. I hope you’ll tell me if I have any of these wrong.

American Rubyspot damselfly male

I wasn’t sure about this one at first, but then I found this next photo of it with wings spread and was able to figure out that it’s an American Rubyspot damselfly. I think we can figure out how it got that name…very distinctive, isn’t it?

American Rubyspot damselfly
American Rubyspot (above) and Ebony Jewelwing, both damselflies.

There were also lots of Eastern Pondhawks, a type of dragonfly. The males and females look very different, as you can see here:

Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly, female
Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly, female (click to enlarge)
Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly, male
Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly, male

I like the green female better. 😉 And guess what else I just learned? Within the order Odonata, dragonflies belong to the suborder Anisoptera which means “unequal wings,” while damselflies belong to the suborder Zygoptera, which means “equal wings.” This is because all four wings of damselflies are the same size, while those of dragonflies are different.

If this sounds familiar, you might be remembering my explanation about woodpecker feet being zygodactyl (“equal toes”), as contrasted with the feet of most other birds which are anisodactyl (“unequal toes”). Here’s that article if you want to refresh your memory (scroll down to the green box on that page).

I can feel my brain getting bigger by the minute, how about you?

And then there was this beautiful Widow Skimmer dragonfly, another male. Apparently the males (of dragons and damsels) are very territorial at the water, and females are thought to hang out elsewhere to avoid the aggressive males until it’s time to lay eggs. I don’t blame them one bit.

Widow Skimmer dragonfly, male
Widow Skimmer dragonfly, male

After an hour or so trying to photograph those speedy fliers, it was a piece of cake to snap pics of the frogs in a nearby pond. I’m not proud to reveal the extent of my lifelong disconnect from the natural world by telling you that I’d never seen a frog with those big flat discs on its head before. At first I thought it had a button stuck to it…seriously, I had no clue. I now know that these are its ears, and if you tell anyone about my ignorance, I’ll say that I knew it all along….

Green Frog, waiting for lunch to fly by
Green Frog, waiting for lunch to fly by

That was a Green Frog, and this next one is a Bullfrog. I’m sure both of them were hoping to have some nice crunchy odes for lunch.

Bullfrog
Bullfrog

Those of you who are paying attention will be thinking, “Hey, where are the toads you promised us?” You, my friends, get gold stars for staying here this long! Here’s your toad:

Eastern American Toad
Eastern American Toad

This guy and his girlfriend almost gave me a heart attack last month when I was moving some bags of mulch in the yard. They didn’t seem to want to move from their moist, shady spot, but I gently herded them to a safer location so I could finish the yard work. I know they can’t hurt me, but something about an animal that jumps unpredictably freaks me out, so it took me an hour to get them far enough away that I could get all of my mulch moved without fear of them hopping onto my head. Geez, what a baby.

Well, this was fun for me, and I hope you learned something too. There’s one last frog to show you. This is One-eyed Joe who lives in a planter beside the garage. I’m not afraid of him.

One-eyed frog

Sparrow Quest

The meadow was filled with mostly purple and yellow wildflowers, and smaller numbers of white ones -- so pretty.
The meadow was filled with mostly purple and yellow wildflowers, and smaller numbers of white ones — so pretty.

Late one evening a few days ago, realizing that I had a completely open schedule the next day, I decided I’d head out in the morning to Orion Oaks County Park to try to find some sparrows. In addition to lots of wooded trails, this park has a huge open meadow that always has lots of sparrows singing in the tall grasses. I’ve been frustrated by sparrows in the past, having trouble telling them apart by sight or by sound. So you’d think I would have listened to some songs of the likely species before I got out in the meadow, right? Nope. It didn’t even enter my mind. So, as poorly prepared as I was, it’s not surprising that I got frustrated again.

Chipping Sparrow watching me watching him
Chipping Sparrow watching me watching him

Sure, I heard plenty of birds singing. But the only ones I could identify were the Chipping, Field, and Grasshopper Sparrows. I could have used my Audubon app to listen to some songs while I was out there, but it’s so hard to see the menus on the screen in the sunlight that I didn’t even try. I’m going to spend some time doing the song quizzes on Larkwire before my next outing, and hopefully I’ll start making some progress toward mastering the sparrows. If you’ve never tried to find sparrows (other than the abundant House Sparrows at the fast food drive through), you might not appreciate how hard they can be to see. They have this maddening habit of singing while they’re hidden in the tall meadow grasses, only popping up briefly and usually too far away to see well. And even when you do see them, they all look like, well, “little brown jobs” (birders even refer to them as LBJs). Until you begin to learn the differences in body shape and size, and habitats, and songs, that is. Only then can you start to make sense of them all in the field. It’s a challenge that I considered not even bothering with two years ago, but as I slowly learn more and more birds I find that it’s not as daunting to add some of the harder ones to my knowledge base. I’m still not ready to tackle gulls though…talk about difficult birds!

Despite my lack of sparrow success, I had a very nice afternoon with lots of other interesting sightings. There were butterflies:

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

And dragonflies:

The only dragonfly to sit still for me that day!
The only dragonfly to sit still for me that day!

And deer:

Young buck deer watching me watching him
Young buck deer watching me watching him

And this mama turkey with her six little poults (you can only see four of them here I think):

Wild Turkey and six poults (1024x683)

I just loved how the meadow looked with the vast expanse of purple and yellow. I tried to get some photos of a Mourning Dove on the grass with the flowers in the background, but the bird didn’t want to cooperate for that one.

Winter Vetch, aka Hairy Vetch
Winter Vetch, aka Hairy Vetch

And let’s not forget the curious Grasshopper Sparrow either. I really love the little bits of yellow above the eyes and on the leading edge of the wing (you can barely see that part in this photo).

Grasshopper Sparrow to edit v4
Grasshopper Sparrow

Massasauga rattlesnake sign (533x800)The other birds I saw that day included Tree Swallows, Cooper’s Hawk, Baltimore Orioles, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Bluebirds, Eastern Kingbird, and a few more. And even a little garter snake that scared the bejeebers out of me when he slithered across the path in front of me. I’m always a bit on edge in that park because of all the signs warning about the Massasauga Rattlesnakes that breed there, so my brain was on high alert. I’d love to see one of those rattlesnakes, but just not too close up. Heck, I feel brave just walking past the warning signs!

A Week in the North Woods – Part One

View of the lake from our dock

We spent last week in a secluded cabin on a small lake in the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Sounds good already, doesn’t it? Wait till I tell you more….

The cabin was on 28 private acres, with a 60-acre lake just steps from the front door. We took our kayaks with us and enjoyed them on the beautiful lake every day. Well, except for the one time it rained all day. Other than that, we were lucky with weather and got to go for three nice hikes during the week.  (I admit there was one unpleasant part of the vacation though: the mosquitoes. Oh man, I couldn’t step outside unless I was coated from head to toe with repellent. Those buggers are vicious! I’m home now, but my arms and legs are covered with bites. Phooey on them.)

There was fishing from the dock….
…and fishing from the kayak.

We both agreed that this was THE quietest place we’d ever been before. I think there was only one time we heard a jet ski from a neighboring lake, but otherwise it was extremely quiet. One night I even got out of bed to make sure I’d left the window open because I couldn’t hear any noise at all! That’s a very odd feeling for someone who’s used to hearing traffic outside her door all day every day. But I could definitely get used to it.

Au Sable Lighthouse

So where did we hike, you ask? We drove about 30 miles east of Munising and walked a mile and a half to the Au Sable Lighthouse. Not only is this cool because it’s the most inaccessible lighthouse on the US mainland, but as you walk along the shore of Lake Superior you pass the wrecks of several ships from the early 1900s. The lighthouse opened in 1874, but I guess this area was still too treacherous for some vessels. I’ll talk more about our bird sightings later, but on this hike we were thrilled to have a Bald Eagle fly right over our heads. It was our only sighting of our national symbol on this trip.

Shipwreck on shore of Lake Superior

Our second hike was in Seney National Wildlife Refuge, a real jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System if you ask me. We first did a 1.5 mile hike around a nature trail loop, where we saw a gigantic nest in a treetop. We thought it might be Bald Eagles, but couldn’t tell with out binoculars. When we got back to the nature center we found that they had a scope set up on it (duh) and it was an Osprey nest. We saw one parent and one youngster in the nest, and we think we saw another adult along our walk but couldn’t be sure of what it was. Wish I’d been able to get a picture of it because this was our first ever Osprey sighting. Gorgeous birds.

After that we killed time for a few hours, hoping to do the 7-mile driving tour nearer to evening hours so we’d have a better chance of seeing bird activity. We ended up starting the drive around 5:30 because we just couldn’t wait any longer. It’s a one-way only driving route with a speed limit of about 15 or 20 mph that passes between a whole system of marshes and woods. At the beginning we had our windows down but quickly had to put them up because of the swarms of black flies attacking the car. It felt like we were in a Hitchcock movie, with dozens of flies just hanging on the outside of the car trying to figure out how to get to us. Ick.  But after we made that adjustment, and despite the heat of the day, we saw Common Loons, a Red-breasted Merganser, lots and lots of Trumpeter Swans, lots of Eastern Kingbirds, an Ovenbird, Canada Geese, a Belted Kingfisher, Ring-billed Gulls (of course), a Great Blue Heron, lots of ravens, goldfinches, and some other warbler that we couldn’t identify — looked like a possible Redstart or Blackburnian. Oh, also this Merlin, another first for both of us.

Merlin

I’ll talk about our third hike and put up some of the other bird pics in Part Two of the story…stay tuned.

By the way, right now there’s a flock of House Finches at our feeders, with several males and about 3 times as many females. One of the males is a very bright red — just beautiful!