There’s This Place I Like to Go…

Boardwalk at Blue Heron Reserve (800x600)This week marked the one-year anniversary of my move to northwest Ohio. And although I don’t have as much time as I used to for exploring and being in nature, I have managed to find one spot that has become my nearest “go to” place when I need to get away. It’s called Blue Heron Reserve, and it’s a 160-acre park with meadows, fens, and woods. The best part is that it’s only 18 minutes away from my home and I’ve been able to find all sorts of interesting plants and creatures there over the past 12 months.

Cabbage White butterfly on clover flower at Blue Heron Reserve (2) (800x644)
Cabbage White Butterfly (Pieris rapae)

A recent visit turned up this Cabbage White butterfly feeding on a clover flower. This highly-cropped version shows the pretty green eyes and the long proboscis that he uses to sip nectar from the flower.

Wasps to ID (800x516)I also found quite a few of these wasps crawling on the ground. I haven’t been able to identify them yet, but I think they’re really pretty, don’t you? I like the combination of that rich brown with the gold rings on the body. Hopefully I’ll be able to find them in one of my insect field guides soon so I can read more about them. (Update: I think they’re Northern Paper Wasps, a very common native wasp in Ohio.)

Tiger Bee Fly (1) (800x645)
Tiger Bee Fly (Xenox tigrinus)

I also found a fly that I don’t remember ever seeing before — this is a Tiger Bee Fly. I think the wing markings are really pretty. This fly was large, probably an inch long. I found one of these hanging around on our mailbox at the office the next day, and was excited that I knew what it was right away.  I learned that this fly is a parasitoid of carpenter bees. That means that it lays its eggs at the entrance to carpenter bee nests, and the larvae eat the carpenter bee larvae. A parasitoid is different than a parasite because a parasite doesn’t necessarily kill its host, whereas a parasitoid does actually kill the host (prey?) animal. Interesting stuff, isn’t it?

Mink at Blue Heron Reserve (2) (800x592)Oh, and look who ran across the path in front of me! This little mink was too fast for me to get a good photo, as he hesitated for only about a second before disappearing into the meadow. I’ve only seen a few mink in my life, so it’s always a thrill to catch a glimpse of these elusive mammals.

Summer Azure butterfly - Celastrina neglecta (1) (800x727)
Summer Azure butterfly (Celastrina neglecta)

Another butterfly, a Summer Azure. I stood there with the camera focused on this one for several minutes, hoping to get a shot of the pretty lavender wings opened. Alas, I didn’t get that shot, but I’m pleased just to get any shot at all because these little purple creatures don’t often sit still for me.

Blue Heron Reserve meadow v2 7-31-2016 (800x594)

More of the one-mile long recycled plastic boardwalk around the meadow. It looks like the park maintenance crew might have been overzealous in killing vegetation along the edges…not sure that’s really necessary in an area like this, but I can’t be sure of what their reasons might be for this.

Bullfrog in water (2) (800x597)
Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus)

On this day I found several bullfrogs in the small spring-fed pond inside the meadow loop. I’ve always been unsure of my ability to differentiate between Green Frogs and Bullfrogs–until now. This is a Bullfrog because the glandular fold wraps around the tympanum (that’s the round spot on the side of its head that functions as a sort of external eardrum). On a Green Frog the glandular fold would continue in a straight line down the back. That makes it really easy for me to tell them apart now. Cool. Here’s another larger Bullfrog:

Bullfrog in water v2

Blue Heron Reserve signI took lots of photos of wildflowers too, hoping to identify some of them later. Maybe I’ll share some of them in another post. The bird activity was slow on my recent visit (because the temperature was in the 90s), but I still saw a couple beautiful male Indigo Buntings singing, and lots of Tree Swallows lined up on the power lines. The swallows are beginning to “stage” for migration now, which means that it’s common to see larger numbers of them gathered together, waiting for some signal that it’s time to head south. It’s

Indigo Bunting male singing (6)
Indigo Bunting singing

always bittersweet when the birds start to show signs of leaving us for the winter. It was just a few short months ago that we so eagerly anticipated their return for the breeding season, and now they’re finished with that important business and getting ready to go again. But fall migration is a long process, so there are months of excitement ahead as various groups of birds come back through here on their way down from Canada….the shorebirds are showing up here already, the warblers are coming, and it won’t be long before it’s November and we have ducks galore.

Sometimes I think I’d like to live in a more moderate climate, someplace where it’s always 70 degrees and sunny, you know? The extremes of hot and cold in this part of the country are a challenge to deal with sometimes. But then again, without our four distinct seasons we wouldn’t have the constantly changing plant and animal life that makes the natural world so interesting. So I suppose it’s a fair trade. 🙂

Swallows staging for migration (800x281)
Tree Swallows staging for fall migration

Macro Nature Therapy

If you’ve ever worked with a macro Yellow flower macro - one-tenth of an inch acrosslens on your camera, you know how addictive it can be. It can even change the way you see the world.  Just look at this little  yellow flower, for instance. I found this Black Medic while pulling lawn weeds a couple years ago, and it was something I had often just yanked without a second glance. The whole thing was only about an eighth of an inch across, so you’d normally never even see all these beautiful details. Isn’t it stunning?

So yesterday, after a difficult week that left me wanting to hide from the world, I took my macro lens to the backyard and found the perfect way to distract myself from dwelling on my problems — by focusing on the tiniest details of the natural world.

First up are Locust exoskeleton - head on view (800x533)these cicada exoskeletons I found in my crabapple tree. Here in northwest Ohio we didn’t have any of the 17-year periodical cicadas that emerged in the eastern half of the state earlier this summer, but the annual cicadas are coming out now. These insects have a fascinating life cycle, part of which is spent as nymphs living underground feeding on tree roots. At some point, whether it’s after only a couple of years or 17 years, the nymphs emerge from the ground and climb the nearest vertical structure to begin molting.

Locust exoskeleton back view (800x710)They shed their exoskeletons, or exuviae, and begin the adult phase of their lives. In this photo you can see the split in the back where the adult exited the exuvia.

As winged adults, they live a few weeks, during which time they mate, lay eggs, and die. When their eggs hatch from the tree branches where they were laid, the tiny nymphs drop to the earth and burrow underground, where the whole process is repeated. Isn’t that cool?

Next up, lotus flowers. My friends and I came upon this huge “field” of lotus flowers while kayaking along the Toussaint River the other evening after work. It reminded me of the giant fields of tulips in Holland, stretching as far as you can see.Lotus flowers on Toussaint River (800x446)

Lotus flower seed pod (1) (800x533)Most of the flowers hadn’t opened up yet, but I found some that had already dropped their petals, exposing the pretty seed pods inside. So I took some macro shots of the pod, which I found out is actually called the “carpellary receptacle.” After the flower is pollinated, the petals fall off, exposing the carpellary receptacle full of seeds. It eventually turns brown and the seeds spill out into the water.

Lotus flower seed pod (2) (800x533)
Closer view of the not-yet-ripe lotus seeds.

Cicada exoskeleton on lotus seed head (771x800)And while I was playing with these things, I couldn’t resist the totally unnatural “exoskeleton on the carpellary receptacle” shot. Pretty cool stuff, isn’t it? Yeah, I thought you’d like that.

Speaking of which, I’ve yet to find one of the newly-emerged adult cicadas to photograph, but I’m still looking….

 

 

 

This afternoon I was checking my milkweed plants for Monarch butterfly eggs (none found yet), and decided to take a macro of the dainty pink flowers. First the wider view —

Swamp milkweed flowers from my yard - macro (2) (800x533)

And then a closer look —

Swamp milkweed flowers from my yard - macro (800x711)

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

I absolutely adore the structure of these dainty little flowers. I took these shots hand-holding the camera, so they’re not as sharp as I’d like. Next time I’m going to use the tripod and hope to get some much better photos of these beauties. And who knows, maybe I’ll still find some caterpillars feeding on the leaves. I had such fun raising Monarch butterflies last year — it would be great to do that again.

Well, that’s all for today. I hope you learned something from this macro nature therapy session. I sure did.

#DistractingMyselfFromHeartache #NatureTherapyReallyWorks

Thrashers, Dashers, and…Mayflies

Brown Thrasher at dripper at BSBO (800x484)
Brown Thrasher in dripper pond

Ok, first things first: No, I didn’t fall off the face of the earth. Although I do feel like I’m sort of in the twilight zone lately, what with all the craziness in the world. Violence, hatred, and sadness seem to permeate everything these days, and I’ve been struggling with mustering up the motivation to write anything. My personal life has been challenging in the past several months as well, so I’ve basically just been trying to get through it one day at a time. But after a couple friends mentioned that they’ve missed my blogging, I decided to try to find something positive to write about and get myself back into a more cheerful state of mind.

Brown Thrasher after bathing at BSBO pond (800x589)
Brown Thrasher after bathing in our pond at the office
Blue Dasher female (800x534)
Blue Dasher, female

So…welcome to “Thrashers, Dashers, and…Mayflies,” my attempt to use nature to heal the parts of my heart that have been hurting.  I’ve been regaining some of my enthusiasm for photography too, thanks to a hot summer loaded with dragonflies. Just when the birding gets really slow in the breeding season, the dragonflies come out in force, giving me plenty of opportunities to try for better photos of these fast-moving and skittish insects.

Eastern Pondhawk - immature male close crop (800x533)
Eastern Pondhawk, immature male only partially blue at this point

All of these photos were taken at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area in Oak Harbor, Ohio. During springtime, this area is a world-renowned hotspot for songbird migration, but in summer it’s virtually deserted. Or, I should say, there are very few people here, but there’s still an enormous amount of life happening here if you’re willing to look for it.

One recent day I spent some time on the Magee Marsh boardwalk with a couple of friends, just taking pictures of dragonflies — and mayflies (but more about them in a moment).

I’m fascinated by dragonflies — Odonata for the scientifically-minded — but I’m certainly no expert at identifying the various species. I have a couple of field guides and make my best guesses, but that’s about it. For example, the picture above I’ve labeled an immature Eastern Pondhawk. The females and immature males are a bright green, but at about a week of age, the males begin to turn blue, first on the abdomen and then on the thorax. The color change takes a couple of weeks, so this guy is perhaps two or three weeks old. Here’s a closer crop of this photo, just because I love looking at their intricate body structures.

Eastern Pondhawk - immature male - close crop of thorax detail and back of head (800x622)
Closer crop of the immature Eastern Pondhawk male

And this next picture shows the difference between the completely green female (or immature male) and the immature male that is in transformation to blue. I don’t know how to determine if the one on the left is a female or young male, but it really doesn’t matter to me. All I know is that he/she is gorgeous!

Eastern Pondhawk - female on left and immature male on right (800x363)

And another one, taken just outside my office on an unbearably hot day:

Eastern Pondhawk female at BSBO (800x534)
Eastern Pondhawk, female or immature male

Oh, let’s not forget the mayflies. Being new to this area, I’d never witnessed a mayfly hatch before. I started hearing people mentioning how there are so many of them that they cover houses and pile up in rotting mounds of carcasses everywhere. I thought they were exaggerating until I saw it for myself. Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos of them covering buildings, but if you want to see some examples, check out this Google image search. Ick, ick, ick.  Can you imagine having to walk through those piles, or having to clean them off your house?

There were days last month when I’d walk outside the office to my car, and come back inside with a dozen mayflies hanging on my shirt. That might sound creepy to some, but they’re harmless (they don’t even have any mouths in their adult form, so they can’t bite), and they’re pretty darn cool. They begin life as aquatic insects, and once they emerge as adults with wings, they only live about a day, just long enough to mate.

Mayflies belong to the order Ephemeroptera, which apparently comes from the Greek words ephemera meaning “short-lived” and ptera meaning “wing.” And I read on the Freshwater Blog that Mayflies are an important food source in parts of Africa, where they make protein patties out of them. Interesting, isn’t it?

Mayfly on tent at BSBO
Mayfly

This next picture was taken on the Magee Marsh boardwalk after most of the mayflies had died. If you look closely you can see all the dead mayflies piled on the boardwalk and hanging from the railings. It was really something to see.

Amy and Ryan on boardwalk with dead mayflies everywhere (800x533)
My friends Amy and Ryan on the mayfly-carcass-covered boardwalk
Mayfly in spiderweb (800x533)
Mayfly carcass in spiderweb

Although there is one insect that I met recently that left a much different memory than the mayflies. I had my first encounter with chiggers a few weeks ago, when I naively walked around in the long grass outside the office and woke up the next morning with dozens of swollen bites all over my body. I’ve been bitten by fleas and mosquitoes many times in my life, and I thought I knew what misery was. But those chiggers ravaged the most tender spots on my body, and I thought I was going to lose my mind for about two weeks until they finally stopped itching. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone!

In about two weeks I’ll mark the one year anniversary of my move to the flatlands of northwest Ohio. Time has really flown by this year. I’m learning a lot about the natural world as I experience the seasons in this new landscape. But I’m still learning things about myself as well. I’ve discovered that I’m braver and stronger than I ever thought I could be. I’ve discovered that I can still allow myself to love and be loved, to have my heart broken and be able to get up and put a smile on my face and try again. And I’m so proud of me. 🙂

 

 

Witness to First Flight

Monarch chrysalis on butterfly weed
Monarch chrysalis on butterfly weed

Today is the continuation of the story I began in my last post, about raising my first Monarch butterfly.  On the evening of August 18, I noticed that I could see the butterfly’s wings through the chrysalis, so I knew it would probably emerge, or eclose, in the next 24 hours. I woke up early the next morning ready to watch the big moment when the adult butterfly would break free of the pupal case and spread its wings.

Female Monarch ready to emerge - MY FIRST ONE (1024x683)
Monarch on the night before it would emerge. The wings are now visible inside!

As soon as I got out of bed I rushed straight to the kitchen table…where the monarch was already out of the chrysalis. I was disappointed that I’d apparently just missed the moment of emergence, but also thrilled to see a moist, fresh butterfly just stretching its wings for the very first time.

When they emerge from the chrysalis their wings are all crumpled up and they have to hang motionless for a while to pump blood through the veins to inflate the wings. You can actually see them slowly straightening over the first few minutes until finally the butterfly looks fully “inflated.”

I watched in awe for a while after that. Even though she wasn’t moving at all, I just couldn’t get over the transformation I’d witnessed. I’d watched her evolve from a little microscopic egg on a milkweed leaf to a tiny little caterpillar, and then to a larger and larger caterpillar. And then she hung upside down and shed her skin, exposing the exquisite jade green chrysalis. And eventually–through some magic of biology that I can only comprehend very vaguely–out popped a butterfly so beautiful that I was speechless.

Victoria just after emerging from chrysalis (932x1024)After about three hours she began to flutter her wings, and not long afterward she let go of the remains of the chrysalis and dropped to the bottom of the aquarium. I’d been concerned about having to release her into a rainy day, and was considering keeping her overnight to give her a better chance the next morning. But she was suddenly getting very active, fluttering around on the floor and trying to climb up the sides. I put a slice of watermelon down for her so she could feed if she needed to. I placed her on the watermelon but she crawled off of it and kept crawling around the edges of the aquarium trying to get out.

First time she spread her wings
On the floor of the aquarium — isn’t she gorgeous?!

I worried that she’d injure herself if I kept her in there much longer. I consulted with a friend who has much more experience with butterflies, and she advised me to go ahead and release her. And since it looked like we had a good break in between rain showers, I decided it would be okay to let her go.

Monarch newly emerged, ready for flight
Monarch preparing to take flight for the first time!

So I took her aquarium out on my patio and tried to figure out how I could get some photos of this big moment. I got a stem of butterfly weed from my garden and gently placed her on the flowers. Then I held the stem out with my left hand while trying to snap photos with my call phone as fast as I could, knowing that she could fly away at any moment.

As I stood there watching this delicate creature feel the wind for the very first time, I marveled at the idea that she was capable of flying all the way to Mexico on those paper-thin wings. After about two minutes I noticed her little head turn to the left and then to the right, as if she’d just noticed her surroundings. And a second or two after that she took flight! She flew about 15 feet straight up into the nearest tree.

Monarch after her first flight, in a tree beside my patio
Monarch after her first brief flight, to a tree beside my patio

And I stood there and wept like a baby. I was surprised at how emotional the moment was. I was exhilarated by the joy of watching her fly for the first time, but I was also sad to see her leave. I know her life will be full of danger, and it’s very possible that she might not survive the journey and make it back next spring. But I’d done all I could for her, keeping her safe from predators in her larval stage (the caterpillar, remember?), so I had to accept that nature would take its course at this point.

I watched her as she sat in the tree for probably 20 minutes or so. There was a fairly brisk breeze knocking her around up there, but she had a good grip and hung on through it all. Then I was distracted for a few minutes by a phone call, and when I turned back to look at her she was gone. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t see which way she went, because I might have felt compelled to chase her around like some sort of lunatic, reluctant to let her out of my sight. #MonarchMama

Monarch number 4 preparing for her first flight
Monarch number 4 preparing for her first flight, September 7, 2015

Since that day I’ve released four more monarchs into the beautiful blue skies of Ohio. And today I still have a few more chrysalises in my aquarium. (Yes, I know that the plural of chrysalis is really “chrysalides” but I find that word awkward so I just use “chrysalises.”) A couple of the big caterpillars have managed to escape the aquarium when they’re ready to pupate. I’ve spent some panicked moments searching my sunroom for missing caterpillars, only to find them hanging under the table or on the bottom edge of the aquarium. The first thing I do each morning and each evening when I return from work is do a head count to make sure nobody is running loose where I might step on them. I guess I should get a better lid on the aquarium, huh?

I’ll end with a couple more pictures from the past few weeks. I hope you enjoy learning this stuff as much as I do. And don’t forget to plant milkweed in your yard — it’s the only plant these beauties can eat.

Monarch caterpillar escapee, searching for a spot to pupate into chrysalis form
Monarch caterpillar escapee, searching for a spot to pupate into chrysalis form
Caterpillar in "hanging J" preparation for pupating into chrysalis form.
Caterpillar in “hanging J” preparation for pupating into chrysalis form.
A very fresh chrysalis. I only missed the transformation by moments!
A very fresh chrysalis. I only missed the transformation by moments!

Becoming

Monarch caterpillar on his hatch day! One-eighth of an inch long.
Monarch caterpillar on his hatch day! One-eighth of an inch long.

Did you miss me? I didn’t intend to be away from the blog for this long, but my big move to Ohio has been all-consuming for the past couple of months. I’m happy to say that I am settled in my new home now–more or less–and have already finished the first two weeks at my new job.

Although my house is all unpacked and functional, my brain hasn’t quite made the transition. I’m still struggling to adjust to my new environment. I had been referring to this move as a sort of homecoming, a return to the state where I grew up and lived most of my adult life before moving to Michigan 15 years ago. But my childhood “home” part of Ohio was in the southeastern part of the state, in the Appalachian foothills. My adult life was spent in Columbus. And the area of Michigan I lived in was highly-populated and also very hilly. Now I live in northwestern Ohio, smack dab in the middle of farm country, and I have to say that it is sort of freaking me out.

Monarch caterpillar - also in my kitchen
Same Monarch caterpillar getting bigger

I’m surprised at how much I feel almost like I’ve moved to another country, or at least thousands of miles away. I’m a “big city” person. But now I live in a small town surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans and lots (I mean lots) of freight train activity. It might sound silly to someone who has lived in this environment their whole life, but for me it’s so strange to hear train whistles in the middle of the night, and to have to stop for trains on a regular basis as I drive to work. For the first few days I thought it was sort of cool. But the novelty of it wore off fast on the first night I was kept awake by train whistles every thirty minutes. (One night I was up at 3 am using Google to read about why trains are allowed to blow those *#^! horns so much while people are sleeping.) But I’ve adapted to the trains now and only occasionally get woken up by them.

But aside from the trains, it’s hard not to dwell on what I’m missing, those conveniences of city life like choice in restaurants and shopping. I’m starting to accept that I’ll have to drive 45 minutes to Sandusky or Toledo for my favorite stores. Locally I have no choice other than WalMart. I’ll get used to it but this is a major adjustment for me. Maybe it sounds like whining but I don’t care. I’ve done more than my share of major life adjustments in the past year and it’s all been emotionally exhausting — my painful divorce, leaving my beautiful home on 2 acres of woods, losing both of my cats, and my kayak, not to mention leaving all of my Michigan friends and my favorite parks. And I’m not done yet. Now I’m going back to work after 15 years out of the work force. It makes me tired just thinking about all I’ve been through lately.

I don’t think anything other than my amazing new job could have convinced me to make yet another major transition at this point in my life. There’s so much that is “foreign” to me here, from the vast flatness of the land to the rural lifestyle. Almost daily I find myself having a moment where I feel a little bit panicked about whether I’ll be happy here. I just have to have confidence that those feelings will go away as I start finding my way around better and integrating into the community, but it’s very disconcerting at this point.

Fear and anxiety many times indicates that we are moving in a positive direction, out of the safe confines of our comfort zone, and in the direction of our true purpose.  ~Charles Glassman

I should mention that the pictures in this post are from my new adventure of raising Monarch butterflies in my home. (See, it’s not all doom and gloom, LOL.) I’ve learned a lot about the life cycle of these fascinating insects. I’ve learned to identify the various types of milkweed they need to survive. I’ve planted milkweed in my yard. I’ve watched them go from tiny little egg to tiny little caterpillar, to slightly bigger caterpillar, to big fat caterpillar, and then to chrysalis. I have an aquarium on my kitchen table that is home to two chrysalises and one tiny caterpillar right now. Later this week I expect that both of the Monarchs will emerge from their beautiful green pods and spread their fresh and untested wings for the first time.

Monarch chrysalis day 2
Monarch butterfly in its chrysalis — in my kitchen

I’ll take each one outside and release it into the sky. These butterflies, who were eggs just a couple weeks ago, will fly to Mexico for the winter. Nobody gives them a user manual or a map, they just have to figure it all out on their own. I wonder what it’s like to be a caterpillar, crawling around eating milkweed leaves one day, and then to wake up a few weeks later with wings. Can you imagine how cool that must be?

In a way, I can see my own journey as a metamorphosis too. The nine months I spent in my transitional apartment were my caterpillar stage, where I was focused on “feeding,” taking care of myself so I would have the strength for what was to come. My big move for this job has been the chrysalis stage, where major changes are taking place inside, hidden from view by anyone else but intensely felt by me.

What’s to come is the most exciting and amazing part of all, where the beautiful butterfly emerges with the courage and strength to go to unfamiliar places. That part is supposed to be the reward for all the hard work and sacrifice of the other stages. I can’t wait for that part! Stay tuned….

 

 

 

Things That Float & Things That Fly

While millions of my fellow Americans spent their time blowing things up this weekend (Happy Birthday, America!), I spent the first two days of the long holiday weekend indoors getting started with packing for my upcoming move to Ohio. Such drudgery for a beautiful weekend, right? But never fear, I managed to get outside today for some much-needed nature therapy.

Crooked Lake boat launchWhen I moved out of the house last fall I wasn’t able to take my beloved kayak with me, so when Eric asked if I wanted to go out on the water today it took me about one-half of a second to say yes. So this morning we headed to Independence Oaks County Park and launched our boats into Crooked Lake. This is a great lake because there’s no beach (thus no beach noise), and because there’s always a lot of wildlife to see there. And today was wonderfully quiet. I guess most people were still recuperating from July 4 festivities, because we had the place virtually to ourselves. There were a couple guys fishing from rowboats but nobody else on the entire 68 acres until we passed two other kayaks as we were paddling back to the ramp three hours later. A perfect little slice of heaven on a Sunday morning.

Eric watching a  Great Egret hunting along the banks
Eric watching a Great Egret hunting along the banks
Blue Dasher with water mites
Blue Dasher with water mites

I continued my attempts to get good photos of dragonflies and damselflies, and ended up with a few good ones. This male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) is one of my favorite dragons. Something about the combination of the powdery blue abdomen and the gorgeous blue-green color of the eyes, contrasted with the brown and yellow pattern on the thorax. Just pleasing to my eye, I guess. And when I got the picture up on the computer, I was immediately curious about those little red spots under the thorax. I discovered that they’re water mites, tiny parasites that attach to the dragonfly while it’s still a nymph living under the water. I found a very interesting blog post (by Jim Johnson) that explains more about the relationship between the dragonflies and the mites, so if you want to know more, click over here.

And then there was this lovely Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta). I think this is the first time I’ve photographed and identified this species. There were quite a few of them engaged in aerial combat with each other.

Slaty Skimmer
Slaty Skimmer

Did you know that dragonflies can fly at speeds up to 20 miles per hour? They can fly forward, backward, and hover like a helicopter. But despite their speed and acrobatic maneuvering skills, they’re no match for Eastern Kingbirds, who like to eat them. Today I watched the parents of a brood of kingbird fledglings working overtime grabbing dragonflies one after the other in mid-air all around me as I sat in my kayak amidst a floating “meadow” of water lilies.

Kingbird with dragonfly
Kingbird with dragonfly

The picture above was taken by Eric a couple years ago. Here’s a shot from today, minus the meal:

Parent kingbird with two hungry fledglings
Parent kingbird with two hungry fledglings

It might sound strange, but I absolutely love the “snap” and “crunch” sounds when a hungry kingbird or Cedar Waxwing snatches a dragonfly out of the air. When I first started spending a lot of time watching animals, I realized that I was going to have to learn not to get upset about one animal eating another. And most of the time I handle it pretty well. Especially when the death of the prey animal is quick, as is the case with insects eaten by birds. If you’re a prey animal and you have to die, then faster is better, right?

But the times when I’m witness to the less-swift death of an animal are much harder to deal with. As was the case a couple weeks ago when I happened upon a Northern Ribbon Snake chasing a little frog, when I had to listen to the screams of the frog after the snake caught it. I had no idea a frog could make sounds like that. It was very distressing to me at the time, but also exciting to see a part of nature I’d never seen before. I’ll bet you’re glad I didn’t get pictures of that encounter, aren’t you?

Here’s another cool behavior I got to photograph today:

Bluets in mating tandem
Bluets in mating tandem
Another pair of bluets, on my arm!
Another pair of bluets, on my arm!

These are bluets, a very common type of damselfly but one I can’t identify down to any one species. They’re all such similar combinations of blue and black that my eyes just glaze over when I flip through the bluet section of my field guide. But that’s okay with me. What’s interesting in this picture is that the two at the top are locked in a tandem, which means that the male is grasping the female behind the head. This is part of their mating process, but it’s uncertain whether they’ve already mated or are preparing to mate. The male will often continue to hold on to the female after mating to prevent other males from getting to her and removing their sperm (yep, they can do that). And if I’m understanding what I see here, there does appear to be another male very interested in this particular lady. So Bachelor #1 seems to be wise to hold on for a while longer.

Eastern Kingbird parent taking a break
Eastern Kingbird parent taking a break

Today was a lovely, relaxing day–exactly what I needed to energize me for the coming week of packing and attending to the many tedious details of moving. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to write much here until I get settled, but I look forward to showing you the natural beauty that abounds in the marshes of northwest Ohio…very soon!

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!