Thursday, July 27, 2006

Hand Feeding a Hummingbird

Russ Thompson, a poster on a Hummingbird Forum that I visit, has a Ruby-throated Hummingbird that will sip nectar directly from the palm of his hand. This is just too cool. Check out the video below and his other hummingbird videos.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Stuffed Animal Bird

My friend Donna was the first person that I've heard refer to a bird as looking like a stuffed animal. When she said this, she was referring to a unique bird - the Boat-billed Heron. This bird has a large, flat bill shaped like a boat - hence the name. It's definitely one of the more unique bills in the bird kingdom (not as unique as this one). It could almost be a character on the Muppets. For a real close look at its bill, you can even buy a skull replica.

The Boat-billed Heron (Cochlearius cochlearius) ranges throughout the New World Tropics from Mexico south to Brazil and Argentina. Similar to the night herons, they are primarily nocturnal and spend the day roosting in mangrove swamps and other wetlands. Their unique bill makes it possible to wade through water and stab their prey or scoop up shrimp and other mud-dwelling prey. When distressed, they will rattle their bills creating a sound similar to hand clapping. I photographed the heron above at CATIE in Costa Rica.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Rough-winged Swallows

Every day on my way to and from work (my whopping 6 minute commute), I pass a grassy field that always has several Northern Rough-winged Swallows (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) zooming high and low catching insects in their acrobatic way. From my perspective of birding, this swallow is a rather under appreciated member of its family. It's easily overshadowed by the shiny Tree and Violet-green Swallows and the colorful Barn, Cave, and Cliff Swallows. It's even slightly overshadowed by the it's slightly more well-marked cousin, the Bank Swallow.

The Northern Rough-winged Swallow is a small, brown swallow with dull to creamy white plumage below. It's head, chest, sides, and flanks are grayish-brown. The throat is usually paler and the tail is square. Its name comes from the rough edge to the outer wing feathers. When Audubon first found this bird, he thought he had found a Bank Swallow. He noticed the rough wing feathers and gave it the common name it now has.

It can be difficult to separate Rough-wingeds from the other brown-backed swallows. It's similar in flight to the Bank Swallow, but can be easily separated when perched. The Bank Swallow has a distinct brown breast band. Young Tree Swallows also look similar, but are dull white below with a smudgy brown breast band. "The tone of the upperparts is helpful on flying birds. Young Tree Swallows are usually a grayer shade of brown than Bank or Northern Rough-winged Swallows. Bank Swallows often look paler on the lower back and rump, which contrasts with dark wings. Northern Rough-wings tend to look uniformly brown above." (Thanks to Mark Johns)

Northern Rough-winged Swallows are found across the US and into southern Canada in summer, but winter along the Gulf Coast and in Central America. During the breeding season, they usually nest in river banks, railroad embankments, gravel pits, and sometimes even in drainpipes and old Kingfisher nests. They feed while on the wing, dining on a variety of insects including wasps, beetles, and mosquitos. Lucky for us, these swallows are doing well in the US. So, next time you see one of these guys zoom by you, give it a second glance and appreciate its subtle beauty.

On another note, the Northern Rough-winged Swallow has a southern relative named... wait for it... the Southern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx ruficollis). This was actually the first life bird I got in Costa Rica as one zipped by our bus as we pulled out of the airport. Its slightly more colorful than its northern cousin, but similarly rough-winged.

Southern Rough-winged Swallow

Monday, July 24, 2006

Jewelry on Wings

On a bright summer day, along any of the many shaded streams and rivers east of the Rockies, you might encounter a true jewel of the natural world. It usually starts with a glimpse of a shimmering, irridescent green and black shape out of the corner of your eye. Then, being relatively tame, one may perch nearby. I'm talking about a beautiful damselfly called the Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata).


I think a more appropriate name would be Jeweled Ebonywing since the most prominent feature is the male's jet black wings. The body of the male shines a brilliant emerald with a hint of turquoise when the light hits it right. The females are similar to the males, except their wings are usually a smoky brown color and have bright white stigmas. The female's body tends to have a bronzy sheen to it.


Ebony Jewelwings fly similar to a butterfly and could easily be mistaken for one. They flit around and perch on twigs and leaves. They may be seen darting out from a perch and returning to that same spot. When exhibiting this behavior, they are usually feeding on various tiny insects such as gnats and aphids. Ebony Jewelwings fly from May through August. Mating usually occurs in the summer. These pictures were taken by Beth and me yesterday at Willowwood Arboretum.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Fishy Business

When Beth and I visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California April, we picked up a pamphlet called Seafood Watch. It's a wallet-sized, fold-out guide to the best fish and shellfish to eat and the ones to avoid from an environmental standpoint. For example, fish like the yuppy restaurant staple Chilean Seabass (AKA The Patagonian Toothfish) is a big no-no. This slow-growing, Antarctic fish should be completely avoided due to overfishing, longline fishing that impacts seabirds, and bottom-trawling that causes sea floor damage. The Seafood Watch web site has all of the information in the wallet guide plus a whole lot more. It's a great place to learn about the fish and shellfish that you should avoid and the ones that are best. The site includes information on health hazards, environmental hazards, alternate names, fishing techniques, and other pertinent information. It's a valuable resource for anyone who has an interest in protecting our seas.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

I and the Bird #28

Katie from Bogbumper is the host of I and the Bird #28. Be sure to stop over to see the plethora of entries this go-round. There are not too many guarantees in life, but you're guaranteed to learn something from at least one of those entries.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Dragonfly & Damselfly Books

Sorry for the lack of bird related posts, but I've been on a bit of a dragonfly and damselfly kick ever since getting my bug net. For anyone interested in getting into dragonflies, there are a lot of books available. For the northeast US, there are several good books available.

The first book I purchased was the Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Dragonflies by Blair Nikula, Jackie Sones, Donald Stokes, and Lillian Stokes. This is a great, pocket-sized guide specifically targeted to the novice "dragonflier". It includes many dragonflies and damselflies from the whole US. Each species account has large pictures and detailed descriptions with the key field marks bolded. It also includes descriptions of typical behaviors, flight times, and range maps. The inside front cover features a quick reference for each of the dragonfly and damselfly families as well. There are several drawbacks to using this book as your only resource. It doesn't cover as many species as some regional guides and other nationwide guides available. This is especially evident in the damselflies and clubtails. It also doesn't always show pictures of females or juveniles for many species. Other than these drawbacks, it is a phenomenal book.

The second book I purchased was Dragonflies Through Binoculars by Sidney W. Dunkle. Being a HUGE fan of Glassberg's Butterflies Through Binoculars series, I thought this would be an excellent choice. The guide includes every dragonfly species that occurs in the US, but does not include the damselflies. The format of this book is similar to the other books in the series. It features phot plates with short descriptions of each photo accompanies by a small range map. The short descriptions highlight the important field marks of each species. Each photo links back to a detailed write-up of that species. The write-ups include a lot of detail on field marks, behavior, life history, and similar species. Like the "Butterflies" book, they also feature interesting notes about some species such as the origin of their names. I commend the author for using a lot of interesting language and some humor to help make the book an interesting read. This book does have one huge drawback - the photos. The photos are just too small and difficult to see. Distinguishing similar species through the photos is next to impossible in some cases. The photos also do not have any kind of scale to them, so distinguishing size can only be done by reading the write-ups. These drawbacks have earned this book a place on my shelf and not in my field pack. It is definitely best used as a reference.

The most recent book I bought is A Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Massachusetts by Blair Nikula, Jennifer L. Loose, and Matthew R. Burne. Although restricted to Massachusetts, the book is applicable, for the most part, to NJ and most of the northeast. This guide is much more detailed than the two discussed above. Each species is given very detailed descriptions, multiple large pictures including females and juveniles, as well as descriptions of similar species. Flight times are displayed on a graphical calendar for easy reference. Unlike the above book, it also includes a ton of information on damselflies. The damselfly section is very in-depth and includes a lot of critical information on separating the difficult species. Summary pages on the abdominal appendages and eyespots for the bluets are especially helpful. The authors have included a horizontal bar at the top of each species account that is the exact size of that species, which is extremely useful. The spiral binding and glossy paper make this an easy book to bring into the field. You can tell that the authors put a lot of time into this book and it has paid off.

A final book that I do not own is Ed Lam's Damselflies of the Northeast. I've seen this book and it is THE authority on damselflies for my area. There are stunning, detailed paintings of every species and lots of great technical information. I hope to get this book soon.

So, if you haven't delved into the world of "odes" yet, hopefully one of these books can get you on your way.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Back in Black

An interesting find we had on our field trip on Saturday was a black form female Eastern Tiger Swallowtails. Most of us are probably familiar with the Tiger Swallowtail. I consider it the other poster child of the butterfly world (the first being the Monarch). A typical male or female is a stunning yellow and black as seen in the picture below. Some females are black though. In some areas of the northern US, most females will be black. These black forms tend to be more prominent in areas with more Pipevine Swallowtails which they are thought to mimic.

Distinguishing the black form from the other black swallowtails of the east can be a bit of a challenge. The key difference to me is that the Tiger Swallowtail retains a "shadow" of the yellow and black pattern on the underside of the forewing as evident in the picture below. The other "black" swallowtails are more "black".

The hind wings of the black form are powdery blue above with a black band dividing the blue areas. This band is absent in the sometimes confused female Spicebush Swallowtail. Pipevine Swallowtails have a single row of orange spots below like the Tiger Swallowtail, but also have a large patch of irridescent blue-green. Spicebush Swallowtail and Black Swallowtail have two rows of orange spots below.

Above the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail black form female has a very thin row of white spots on the upper forewing margin that is easily spotted in the field. No other "black" swallowtail in the east has these markings.

Female Tiger Swallowtail - Notice the tiger pattern shadow and the row of white spots on the forewing

Pipevine Swallowtail - Notice the irridescent patch

Black Swallowtail - Notice two rows of spots on hindwing below

Female Spicebush Swallowtail - No black line dividing the blue patch on the hindwing above

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Results of Fairview Farm and Willowwood Arboretum Field Trip

The NJ Audubon Society "Butterflies and Dragonflies" field trip to Fairview Farm and Willowwood Arboretum in Morris County was a great success today, despite being rained out in the end. We had 10 very engaged participants who made it a joy to lead the trip. Here's a summary of the trip with full lists at the end.

We began the trip in the butterfly garden at Fairview Farm. Among the many species of butterfly plants there are Buddleia (Butterfly Bush), Bergamot, Black-eyed Susan, Coneflower (Echinacea), Joe-pye Weed, and Salvia. We enjoyed close looks at many wonderful species of butterfly including Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (including the black form of the female), Summer Azure, Cabbage White, Delaware Skipper, and a probable Broad-winged Skipper. There were also two types of "hummingbird" moths here: Hummingbird Clearwing and Snowberry Clearwing. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird, an Eastern Bluebird, and many House Wrens were also a nice treat.

We then headed out to the meadows and pond. In the meadow we spotted a Monarch feeding on Butterfly Weed, as well as a distant Great-spangled Fritillary. Wildflowers included Field Chickweed, Queen Anne's Lace, Yarrow, St. John's Wort, Hop Clover, Dogbane, and the find of the day - a splendid Ragged Fringed Orchis. A Ring-necked Pheasant at the bird feeders was a surprise. We also found a really neat beetle on the dogbane, which I researched and found out is actually called a Dogbane Beetle (see pic below). Flitting among the flowers and grasses we found three new butterflies for the day: Pearl Crescent, Eastern Tailed Blue, and Juniper Hairstreak. Juniper Hairstreaks lived up to its name since it was very close to several Eastern Red Cedar trees.

As we got closer to the pond, we started to look at dragonflies and damselflies. I netted a young male Eastern Pondhawk, a Widow Skimmer, and a Prince Baskettail. A male Blue Dasher that was netted yielded an interesting find - sperm packets ready to deposit into a lucky female. Damselflies were noticeably absent, but we did find two. One proved to be a tough ID and we never had a confirmation, but the second was a lovely blue and green Eastern Forktail. The unidentified damselfly was most likely a mature female Eastern Forktail after some research. We observed more dragonflies over the water that we're not cooperative enough to allow me to net them: Black Saddlebags, Twelve-spotted Skimmer, Eastern Amberwing, Common Green Darner, and Common Whitetail. Our last catch of the day was a very cooperative Halloween Pennant who was kind enough to pose for pictures on my palm.

We packed our things and headed over to Willowwood Arboretum. We had some nice lunches and then the rains began. Before the rain really hit, we had some time to enjoy the beautiful cottage garden that included many native and non-native species. A few pots of flowering Pitcher Plants were especially interesting. In the cottage garden, we saw another Juniper Hairstreak. A captured Hummingbird Clearwing put on a nice show for us before we let it go. We found a few more wildflowers here including Jewelweed and Tall Meadow Rue. Unfortunately, the rain decided to stay and our trip was cut a little short. Thanks to all the participants who made this a really nice trip!

Here are some pictures:

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Probable Broad-winged Skipper

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth

Dogbane Beetle

Juniper Hairstreak

Male Blue Dasher (those black dots are sperm packets)

Prince Baskettail

Hummingbird Clearwing Video


Spicebush Swallowtail
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Cabbage White
Great Spangled Fritillary
Summer Azure
Eastern Tailed Blue
Juniper Hairstreak
Pearl Crescent
Delaware Skipper
Broad-winged Skipper (probable)
Eastern Forktail
Green Darner
Prince Baskettail
Widow Skimmer
Halloween Pennant
Eastern Pondhawk
Common Whitetail
Blue Dasher
Eastern Amberwing
Twelve-spotted Skimmer
Black Saddlebags

Friday, July 14, 2006

Field Trip Tomorrow

I'm leading a butterfly and dragonfly walk tomorrow for NJ Audubon. I have about 10 participants attending, so it should hopefully be a nice trip. We're going to Fairview Farm and the Willowwood Arboretum. I've got my net ready and the weather is going to be good (but HOT!). Check back on Sunday for a full report from the trip.

Ready for the trip! Wow, I look like a dork...

Thursday, July 13, 2006

More Georgia Nature Sightings

A few more nature sightings from our recent trip to Georgia...

The first thing we encountered on our hike at Stillwater Creek State Park was the spider below. I remember seeing spiders like this in a book I had as a kid. The spiked abdomen is really cool. This one is an Arrow-shaped Micrathena (Micrathena sagittata).

Along the hiking trail, we also encountered this Tiger Beetle species. I think it is Cicindela unipunctata. Tiger Beetles, in the family Cicindelidae, are known for their speed, aggressiveness, and predatory behavior. Sorry for the blurry picture, but that little bugger wouldn't sit still. This is only the second species of Tiger Beetle I've ever seen, the other being the fairly common Six-spotted Tiger Beetle.

Finally, there were a ton of these tiny little toads hopping all around along the creek. They were less than an inch long and very quick. My reptile field guide wasn't much use for figuring out what these guys are. My knowledge of frogs and toads is pretty limited, so this may even be a frog and not a toad.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Crazy Mantis

Ok I'll try not to get too "video happy" here, but I wanted to show this video from last year. I took this video of a Praying Mantis (Mantid sp.) on a hike up Pyramid Mountain. When I got it home, I noticed that the Mantis let out an extremely freaky squealing sound and lurched towards the camera. I searched for some more info on the sounds that mantids make, but I couldn't find any information. Any out there in the blogosphere have any info on this?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Kites and Vultures Video

Wow, now that I know how easy it is to post videos using Google Video or YouTube, you will probably see more of it on this site. As I mentioned in a recent post, Beth and I witnessed a wonderful spectacle of Kites and Vultures at the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge last Thursday. I took some video with my point-and-click camera and was able to capture some cool footage of a Swallow-tailed Kite in flight. In the beginning of the video, you can also see a lot of little black specks that are actually Mississippi Kites, Turkey Vultures, and Swallow-tailed Kites. Forgive my awful narration. Also, note that I mention "30-40 Kites" but there were many more up the road. Enjoy!

Monday, July 10, 2006

Claudell & Pee-Wee

Claudell and Pee-Wee??? These were the names of two of my pet Anole lizards I had in 5th grade. Claudell was named after journeyman NY Yankees outfielder Claudell Washington and Pee-Wee was named because Pee-Wee Herman was big at the time (long before the theater incident). My memory of these lizards is of little green or brown lizards that just kind of stood on sticks all day long. Once in a while one of their throats would puff out and turn red. I had no clue why. They also ate lots of crickets. These crickets would escape the cage and we'd hear them chirping all night. I had 2 Anoles for a period of time and then one slowly starved to death. So I went and got another one and it died too. It turns out, thanks to the pet store owner's vast knowledge, that if you have 2 Anoles at once, one will eat everything and one will eat nothing. Now he tells us! Eventually I stuck with one lizard and he eventually died (no clue if it was Claudell or Pee-wee or the anonymous 3rd one).

The reason I'm telling my Anole story is because we saw a bunch of them in Georgia last week. It got me thinking about my old pets and how little I know about them. The Green Anole, Anolis carolinensis, is a tree-dwelling lizard native to the southeastern United States and Caribbean islands. Like a chameleon, they have the ability to change colors. They have a range of colors including green, brown, tan, yellow, or a mixture. Temperature, camouflage, and emotion are all "reasons" to change color. The red throat I remember is actually called a dewlap. It can be extended for courtship or territorial display. Mature males also have a crest down their back called a "roach" which is also used for courtship or territorial display. They feed primarily on insects and there are plenty of them down south.

I was interested in their breeding habits. Anoles mate in late spring or early summer. They lay 1-2 eggs per clutch in decaying vegetation higher up in trees. They may lay multiple clutches every 10-14 days. In 60-90 days, little hatchlings appear and leave to establish their own territories in trees.

In parts of their range, these compete with another species, the Brown Anole (Anolis sagrei sagrei) - an exotic species. Brown Anoles and Green Anoles fight each other with the Green Anole usually coming out the winner. Green Anoles have also been known to prey on young Browns and vice versa.

So the next time you see one of these critters running around, you'll hopefully know a little more about them and appreciate them even more.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Georgia Jackpot

We're back from Georgia after 5 days of fun in the sun and humidity of Georgia. We spent the first few days an hour or so west of Atlanta. We got to visit the Georgia Aquarium and saw the 4(!!!) Whale Sharks there. Amazing! If you get to Georgia, go here! We spent a few days with Beth's Georgia family (Hi Brenda!) where we hung out with the family, ate some great food, and even went rollerskating. We then drove to Savannah. In Savannah we toured the city and ate some amazing low country cooking by Paula Deen and Mrs. Wilkes. Savannah is a great historic town and I highly recommend visiting there.

On our last day we drove north towards Charleston, SC. Upon crossing the border, we saw signs for the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. We turned off the highway and were quickly on the nature loop drive around the refuge. The refuge is mostly marsh habitat with tons of American Lotus and Water Lilies this time of year. We stopped the car to look at some wildflowers when a Least Bittern popped out of the marsh and circled us several times. I noticed an insane amount of dragonflies flying around. Every available perch seemed to host a dragonfly of some kind. The most abundant appeared to be Four-spotted Pennants. While observing the dragonflies, I heard an unknown high-pitched call to my left. I looked up in the sky and was amazed to see one of my most wanted birds in the world... a Swallow-tailed Kite! Then another... and another... and another! Four kites quickly passed overhead. They circled a few times and then were gone. It was an unforgettable experience.

We continued on the trail and saw many different wildflowers including Blue Vervain, Pickerel Weed, and Prickly Mallow. We also saw Common Moorhens, Wood Ducks, Tri-colored Herons, tons of Cattle Egrets, Snowy Egrets, and Great Egrets.

Along one stream we encountered 5 Alligators! When one got close to a Moorhen, I was hoping he would eat it, but no luck.

Later on the drive, I noticed about a dozen raptors in the sky. They turned out to be Mississippi Kites feeding on the abundance of insects. They were quickly joined by some friends and soon there were literally 100 Mississippi Kites over our heads. Ten of their Swallow-tailed brethren joined them and it was an unbelievable sight to see. Kites were dashing this way and that, doing loop-the-loops and feeding on the wing. My description can't do this experience justice. Check out a mediocre video I took.

For a trip on the whim to this refuge, it created several experiences that I will treasure.

Cattle Egret

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Georgia on my mind

Beth and I are off to Georgia tonight until next Thursday. We're visiting some of her family who originally hail from the area of Booger Hollow (no joke). We're also going to see the new Georgia Aquarium, the largest aquarium in the world. This aquarium has a huge tank with whale sharks! When I was a kid, I wanted to be a marine biologist and whale sharks were one of my favorite fish. We're also going to spend a few nights in Savannah. Birding-wise, we'll squeeze in a few chances to bird. I hope to find a Swallow-tailed Kite and maybe some other birds. Painted Buntings are supposedly pretty easy to find south of Savannah, so that's always a nice bonus. So I won't be writing while we're away, but I will write more when I return!