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!

Leaving the Nest: Robins Take Flight

If you’ve kept up with my posts about our nesting robins, you’ve probably been wondering about the conclusion to the story. I’d been so sure they were going to leave on the weekend of the 27th/28th. They seemed to be getting too big to fit in the nest, but they managed to stay in there through the weekend. Although on Sunday night I could only see two of them, so I wondered if the first had already flown the coop, so to speak.

Two babies on July 29, the day before they left the nest
Two babies on July 29, the day before they left the nest

On Tuesday morning (July 30) I didn’t check the nest until about 10 am. Too late, the nest was completely empty!  I was so disappointed that I wasn’t able to see their first flights, but as soon as I saw that they’d fledged I ran outside with my camera to look for them.

I quickly found the mama bringing a worm to one of the fledglings in a smaller tree only a few feet from the nest tree. Then I saw another of the fledglings nearby. I never saw all three of them at once though. I knew the parents and babies would be nervous on this first day out of the nest, so I didn’t get too close or stay too long. I managed to get one good picture of a youngster with his short stubby tail:

First day out of the nest
First day out of the nest — time to grow some tail feathers!

Their tails don’t grow out until they leave the nest, probably because there’s no room in the confined space for those long feathers. And I’m sure that’s why they can’t fly well for the first week or two. I love those little stubby-tailed babies, don’t you?

An empty nest
An empty nest

It’s a bit of a letdown to see the empty nest when I look out the kitchen window now. I’d grown so accustomed to having to step around the spotting scope on its tripod in front of the sink, and checking up on them throughout each day.

I hope they’re surviving out there; I’ll probably never know. And the second robin’s nest on a branch over the garage? I see very little activity at that nest. I did see babies at one point, and have seen the female adult standing on the nest edge, but lately I don’t see much going on there. I can’t be sure what’s happened yet, but I’ll keep watching it for a while.

It’s been so much fun having the robins raise their family in a spot where we could easily watch them. I’ve learned a lot about the lives of these often-overlooked common birds. I’ve seen how the female does the hard and dirty work of building the nest, how she sits on those eggs through thunderstorms and unbearable heat, and how she and her mate run themselves ragged bringing food to hungry babies for the last two weeks. I watched them bring a variety of offerings to the gaping mouths: berries, grasshoppers, and worms.

I even learned something about earthworms. One day after a fishing trip, Eric dumped his leftover worms under the nest tree to help the parents feed their babies.  Coincidentally, I had just read a blog which had a link to this article by Rebecca Deatsman. It explains that the earthworms in the northern parts of the country are not natives but are introduced species, and why that matters to some ground-nesting birds. I encourage you to read it if you’re curious. But whether they’re natives or not, those fishing worms clearly provide vital nourishment for our native robins.

I find it so fascinating to learn about the interconnectedness (is that a word?) of the plants and animals I find while exploring the natural world. Every species plays a role in the ecosystem, and the presence or absence of each one has a ripple effect through the entire system. If you’re someone who loves learning for its own sake — like me — you’ll appreciate how curiosity about one thing often leads to learning about another, and how much fun it can be to discover something new about how the world works.

I’ve been meaning to tell you about two books I’ve really loved recently:” target=”_blank”> Bringing Nature Home and ” target=”_blank”>Field Guide to Eastern Forests. The first one gave me a “light bulb” moment when it made clear to me, finally, why it’s important to use native plants in our yards and gardens. I’d “known” for years that it was important, but never truly understood the reasons for that importance. This book made it all crystal clear. Maybe soon I can write more about it here (or you can read the book yourself — I highly recommend it). And the Peterson Guide to Eastern Forests is helping me understand which types of trees and plants grow in specific areas, and how each habitat changes with the seasons. Things you either think you already know, or things you never thought to even consider…I just love it. Maybe I seem like a dorky bookworm to some of you, but I make no apologies. After all, what good is knowledge if you don’t share it, right? 🙂