Sunday, August 29, 2010

Scenic Sunday

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Wordless Wednesday - Locked Up

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Monday, August 23, 2010

"Welcome To The Sand Lance Buffet!" Common Terns, Double-crested Cormorants, Harbor Seal

Common Tern with a mouthful of Sand Lances
Common Terns, adults and juveniles feasting on Sand Lances. "Mom! Got any tartar sauce for these?" 
Double-crested Cormorants patrolling for Sand Lances  
Everybody wanted in on that action! This Harbor Seal showed up while I was photographing the birds.

    The same day that I photographed the gulls hawking the ants, there was another kind of feeding frenzy going on in Totman Cove: Welcome to the Sand Lance 'all-you-can-eat' Buffet! Sand Lances are a slim, elongated, schooling fish. Although they are eel-like in their shape and movements, they aren't a true eel. There are eighteen varieties of them found across the globe. They range from eight to eighteen inches long. The ones in these photographs were the short ones. Nonetheless, it would gross me out to be swimming with them. I have a phobia about the bottoms of bodies of water when I can't see what's down there. Just the idea that these creatures could be around my legs creeps me out severely. Give me a clear, swimming pool or at least an actual snake or spider that I can see.
     Sand Lances are an important food for forty-five species of predacious fishes, some invertebrates, twelve species of marine mammals and forty species of birds. I watched seals, ospreys, cormorants, gulls, and terns feeding on them. Even an eagle showed up and lurked in the trees. It didn't try for any of the slithery little fishes, but did seem very interested in all the action. I suppose for an eagle it would be like eating a fistful of French fries, hardly worth the bother. The ospreys that were diving for them were juveniles. The fish, barely visible in the big birds' talons, were probably crushed to mush by the time they got to a perch to consume them. The eagle gave chase to an osprey; gulls and terns chased the eagle and the osprey; terns and gulls dove on the cormorants when they surfaced with the Sand Lances and God only knows what was going on below the surface. See? That's why I don't like swimming in there! Horrible horrors! A person could get mauled in the melee.
     Sand Lances aren't eaten here, but I can imagine them lightly breaded, fried and eaten whole - bones and all like Smelts. Yummy! Now you're talkin'! A generous squeeze of lemon and some home-made tartar sauce, a side of Cajun curly fries and cole slaw............get the nets! I'm ready for 'em. See how easy I am? If I can relate a thing to anything with mayonnaise, I'm okay.
If you would like more scientific information about Sand Lances, click here:
If you want recipes, see me on The Food Channel!
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Sunday, August 22, 2010

No Laughing Matter - Gulls Hawking Ants

"Hear me laugh! Hear me roar!" Seriously, folks: to hear me laugh, click here Laughing_Gull/sounds
"It's not sensor dust, swear to God!"
The gull on the bottom right is a Bonaparte's, also called 'Bonnies." The other three are Laughing gulls.
    When birds catch insects in midair, it's called 'hawking.' Hawks actually catch prey with their feet, not their beaks, and they take the prey back to a perch to eat it. Other birds can eat in mid air unless the insect is too big, like a moth or a Cicada. Someone back in birding history thought that the behavior resembled that of hawks. So, that's what it's called.
     In late August each year, I observe Laughing gulls and Common terns, hawking flying ants in mid air. Large colonies of the ants swarm up out of the ground quite suddenly. Born aloft on summer thermals clouds of them fill the sky, land in the swimming pool and catch in my clothing. If our dog goes outside while this is taking place, he comes back in with ant riders on his back, too. Yippee kai-oh, kai-ay!
    This event lasts  for just a few hours at our house, but occurs other places, too. Suddenly, the air is filled with strident gulls whirling around and sounding like inmates at an insane asylum. The gulls rival the acrobatics of swallows in their aerial quest. They twist, turn, spiral, dip, swoop, hover, dive and every maneuver other than curtsy while feasting on the ants. In some of these photos, you can see the flying ants. I know, I know: some of you digital photographers are going to say that those specks are dust on my sensor. Not so. You'll just have to trust me on that. I hate it when people say, "Trust me," like some kind of command. Invariably, whatever statement has bracketed that dictum rarely ever proves totally 'trustworthy.' That said, the specks really are ants. Honest. After all, this is about birding, which is very  serious. I wouldn't kid about that. I would just lie outright. Insert smiley face here. Remember that you can double click on any image on this blog to see more detail. Or, trust me. It's not a laughing matter. 
     Laughing gulls certainly don't think it's funny business, though their vocalizations sound like they are laughing constantly. You can go to the head of the class if you figured out that's where the name came from. Ants are a big part of their diet, though they are omnivorous and  will eat any garbage or other thing they can catch.  Laughing gulls are in the group of "hooded gulls." It's not because they are hoods or thieves, but from their black heads which look like they're wearing hoods. Franklin gulls, Black-headed and Bonaparte's gulls look a lot like them. Franklin and Black-headed gulls are not common here, though Bonaparte's are. And listen, Smarty-pants, Bonaparte was a famous ornithologist in the 1800s. The gulls were named after him, not after the French emperor with his hands stuck in his shirt (though they were related).  
     In Maine, Laughing gulls are migratory. They go to South America and most anywhere that's warmer than here. In other parts of the country, Laughing gulls hang around airports and get into engines of jets causing crashes. This is a big, scary problem if you are a passenger and also if you are a gull. "Measures," are taken to control the gulls' population for this reason. Eliminating the ant colonies is one of the measures. Even though the gulls laugh all the time, no matter where they are, they don't think any of this is funny. 

These are Bonaparte's gulls. "Note the extensive white in the wingtips with the narrow band of black on the trailing edge of the wingtip as opposed to the broad black area in the wingtips of the Laughing Gulls," says birder Jeff Wells. Thanks, Jeff!

"If you're not laughing with me, you're laughing at me!"
This is a Laughing gull. He's laughing because he knows I'm probably going to screw up the identifications of him and his pals.

This is an interesting research paper about Laughing gulls hawking ants and biologists shooting the gulls to check their stomach contents. The gulls were hanging around Kennedy National Airport. Can you imagine gorging yourself at an all-you-can-eat buffet only to have a scientist shoot you to examine your stomach contents? Now that's enough to make you think twice about going up to the bar for that fifth plate, isn't it!  Laughing gull guts or "Temporal Variation in Terrestrial Invertebrate Consumption by Laughing Gulls in New York" is the title. Who's laughing now?

Jeff Wells is a noted Maine birder with a nice web site. He talks about gulls hawking ants here

If you want to know more about Charles_Lucien_Bonaparte the ornithologist, click on his name.

Paul Garritty also has a nice birding site in Maine. Here's a link to his page on gulls in Maine:

Thanks to Wikipedia, and David Allen Sibley's The Sibley Guide To Birds  for some of the information.

Scenic Sunday - Small Point Harbor

The view from our house looking south.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

"To Hell In A Horn Worm!" - Tomato Horn Worms

Tomato Horn Worms eating tomatoes. Cool Pippy Longstockings type socks!
These are Tomato Horn Worms at different ages. The one on the left is carrying the cocoons of a parasitic wasp.

Cocoons of the a small braconid wasp, Cotesia congregatus.
When I was growing up, when things were going badly (anyone who knows that situation would see a major redundancy here), my parents would say that things were "going to hell in a hand basket." Things usually were going badly, so I heard that frequently. That was one of those expressions about which I completely and totally understood the intent, but not the literal meaning. I still don't, though I've given it a lot of thought. "To hell in a hand basket?" Exactly what does that mean? This kind of ambiguity ate at me as a kid; I needed to know what it really meant. Otherwise, I felt like I was missing out on something. If I didn't crack the code, I was out on the secret meaning which could bode badly for me. I had learned early on the emotional codes my parents issued, the verbal and the nonverbal. It was imperative that I picked up on the subtleties of their moods in order to protect myself and preserve harmony between them and my siblings. If I missed a cue, all hell could break loose, hand basket or no.
     It turns out that if you Google the phrase,  "to hell in a hand basket," it doesn't literally mean anything. It's called an alliterative  locution - a figure of speech based on repeating sounds. A figure of speech introduces ambiguity between the figurative and the literal meaning. It may give a snappy, clear idea of the speaker's meaning, but not through an entirely coherent concept. I hate that. I want literalness and facts. I think that's why I love nature photography. "Just give me the facts, Mam, " as Jack Webb would have said. So, here are some facts without judgement nor ambiguity:
     Tomato Horn Worms are the larval part of the life cycle of the Hummingbird Sphinx Moth, about which I had  posted earlier. Like the hookah smoking caterpillar sitting atop the mushroom in Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, I waited for them to say something, but they did not. All they did was eat and eat and eat the tomato plants on which I found them. I took some home (you knew I would!) to observe and waited some more. As near as I could tell, they did not sleep nor otherwise rest (my caterpillar cam was on the fritz or I would have recorded twenty-four-seven behavior). All they did was continuously eat and poop. I photographed them doing that, but left it out of these photos. I try to be somewhat sensitive to my audience and that activity seemed to me to fall under the TOO MUCH INFORMATION actOf note, though is that you are more likely to see the poop before you see the caterpillar.
     The caterpillars grow to be an astounding five inches long! I could actually hear them munching which was a little disturbing. I made sure the lid was secure on their cage before I went to bed. I did touch them just to see what they felt like. The horn is sharp, but the body of the caterpillar is remarkably soft like your earlobe. Oh dear, was that TMI? I bet you reached up and touched your earlobe when you read that, though.   
     Eventually, the caterpillars will drop to the ground where they will pupate. If early enough in the season, the pupas will develop into the beautiful Sphinx moths buzzing around your petunias in the same summer. Or, they may stay underground and emerge in the spring.  Don't forget that when you see these enormous, voracious caterpillars. The Horn worm has not become an economic problem for commercial farmers, but can wipe out a home gardener's crops of tomatoes, eggplants and potatoes (all members of the solanum family) nearly overnight. Well camouflagged, they are difficult to see on the plants they are consuming until the damage has been done. They prefer the leaves, but will munch on the fruits if that's all they can get to. When a gardener awakes to find the tomatoes he's been waiting for all summer decimated, it would be appropriate for him to scream "Everything has gone to hell in a Horn Worm!" Now, that to me is an alliterative locution which makes total sense.
     Horn worms are preyed upon by birds and also a small, beneficial wasp. The wasp lays eggs on the caterpillars. The eggs hatch, then the larvae feed on the insides of the caterpillar, eventually forming a cocoon. That's the little white things in the photos which look like grains of rice. If you find these on Tomato Horn worms you should leave them in the garden so that they can help to organically control your infestation of Horn worms.
     I hope this was informative and not merely hideous. At least when next you hear me scream, "It's all gone to hell in a Horn worm!" you'll know just what I mean.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010


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Wordless Wednesday - Fritillary On Liatris

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Wordless Wednesday - Atlantic Puffin

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Waiter! There's A Fly In My Soup!" - Barn Swallows Feeding Young

These are Barn swallows. I took these photographs in Phippsburg while sitting in my car. I could have watched them all day, but did not. I realized that sitting on the side of the road, though not  talking on a cell phone made me look like a stalker or a cat burglar casing homes. I didn't even have a cell phone with me, nor lunch, nor anything else that could explain what I was doing had I been asked. I only had a suspicious looking camera with a long lens and a couple of waterproof field notebooks. All together, it was an assemblage of possibly circumstantial looking evidence that did not look good for me. So, I moved on.
     The maneuverability of the adult birds in flight was spectacular. Barn swallows don't fly all that fast, only about twenty miles an hour. But, they can dip, turn, dive and spin to catch insects in midair. About seventy percent of what they eat is big flies as seen in the bottom photos. They do eat other insects and will pick ants from the ground, too. I have photographed Barn swallows before and written about them, as well (in the previous post about them I had mentioned Michael Jackson, too. According to some readers, that would be another tick against me in the negative column for a jury). Their grace and socialness fascinate me. I have read that they practice mutualism with osprey. I've never seen this, but apparently they will build their nests under that of an osprey taking advantage of the bigger birds protection of their own nest from other birds of prey, like eagles, owls and falcons. The osprey benefits by the swallows alarm calls when there are predators nearby. I am guessing that the flies that accumulate near an osprey's nest from rotting fish parts are attractive to the Barn swallows, too. A little house keeping seems like a good trade for protection from gangsters on the block!
    Barn swallows nest twice a summer. Their clutch success rate (sounds like points a woman gets for buying a really good handbag!) is about 80% unless it has been a cold, rainy year. This keeps the insect counts down and thus, the food availability. That happened in Maine last year when June had record breaking precipitation. Anecdotally (I don't know if ornithology data supported this), people reported fewer swallow chicks.  The chicks fledge about twenty days after hatching. Then, after they have left the nest, they are fed for about a week by the parents. Sometimes, the first brood will assist in feeding of the second! Both parents feed the young. Lady Barn swallows like guys with longer tail streamers (the tail feathers on either side of the notch). If a male is missing his tail, he may be a helper assisting in nest building and feeding rather than breeding. Now is that cordial or what?  
"Cool move, Mom!"
"Hey! What about me? That one looks really juicy!"
Thanks to  wikipedia for some of the information.

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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Homer Simpson Is A Birder - Blue-headed Vireo & Yellow warbler

Female Yellow Warbler - Phippsburg, Maine  August 2010
     I have a dilemma. I posted these photographs to the Maine Bird List Serve (an Internet reporting service for birding enthusiasts) asking if it was a Tennessee Warbler. Because the bird looks olive green to me, I was thrown and floundering on the identification. The color threw me completely. I was told by numerous respondents that it is a female Yellow warbler. I've seen lots of Yellow Warblers and have photographed many of them, so I didn't think that was it. I spent a fair amount of time wading through bird guides before I posed my question to the larger audience. To give you an idea of how complicated this is I have included one of the responses I received -

"The bird Robin photographed is a female Yellow Warbler. Note the decurved culmen and rather stout bill typical of the genus Dendroica and unlike the nearly straight and sharply pointed bill of Tennessee (genus Oreothylpis, formerly Vermivora). The bird is short-tailed and has yellow edging to tail feathers and the wing; it has a paler yellow eyering; and, unlike Tennessee, bright yellow through out the underparts."

     Now, doesn't that just give you a headache? And admit it, you didn't read the whole thing, short as it is. That's okay. I'm a devoted birder and yet, I too find some of it pretty tedious. My reaction probably accounts for my failure to get it right a lot of the time, too. Warblers at this time of year are a significant challenge because they are wearing non breeding plumage. They are also migrating, so there are more of them including juveniles, headed south.
     My dilemma is that I do want to know what the birds are, but so often, I can't figure it out, so I want to keep asking the experts. Responses to my questions like these, "It's THAT would be a hint," and "Look it up," indicate to me that my questions are annoying. Do ya think? I guess you never get too old to ask a question which someone more knowledgeable will regard as a stupid question. So, should I keep putting it out there just how dumb I am, or keep asking the questions?

Blue-headed vireo eating a Cicada, Phippsburg, Maine August 2010

Blue-headed vireo eating a Mountain ash berry, Phippsburg, Maine August 2010

     Which brings me to this bird. I was pretty sure it was an American redstart. My inclination was that it was a female, or that it could be a first year. I felt pretty pumped up and big for my britches that I had figured that out, too. The head shape and spectacles made me nervous, though. Yes, nervous. Shouldn't birding and photography be fun first, anxiety provoking second? My palms were sweating as I put the question out to the list serve. I reflexively pulled the collar of my shirt away from my neck. I coughed. My tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth. I felt a hive welting up. I grabbed a paper bag and pulled it down over my head to stop the hyperventilation I could not control. My head was reeling as I hit send. And of course, I was wrong. In less then twenty-four hours, I committed to the wrong bird! Aachararrrrrrrghhhhh! Being the Homer Simpson of birding, I slapped my head, "N-DOH!"
     At least this was not one I had ever seen before. It is a Blue-headed vireo. There are fifteen species of vireos. Three of them, Plumbeous, Cassin's and Blue-headed look very much alike. In the past, they were lumped together as all one species, the Solitary vireo. Blue-headeds are the eastern most of the three and they like coniferous forests which the other two don't care for so much. Vireos are about 4 1/2 inches head to tail. Their pronounced spectacles are one of their primary identifying features. They are primarily insect eaters though they do eat some fruit. They are migratory in Maine and head to Mexico and Central America when it gets cold which makes them smarter than me and Homer Simpson.

Thanks to David Allen Sibley, The Sibley Guide To Birds and for some of the information.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"Oh De'ah!" White Tailed Deer And Fawns

     A couple of weeks ago, my neighbor reported seeing this pair of White Tailed Deer fawns and the doe in attendance along our driveway. Then my husband came home several times saying he'd seen them, too. This really irked me. The deer have been in our yard when no one has been looking and chewed up my hostas and the rhododendrons along the driveway have been skeletonized. As much as I know that they have to eat too, I regard deer as cloven hoofed rats. My dog doesn't care what they are doing and is of no service, neither keeping them out, nor letting me know if they are around. I think the deer and the dog actually have some secret agreement that I don't know about. It would be something like "If you don't make me get up from my nap, I'll let you eat whatever you want to. Go ahead, just don't bother me." I can kind of understand that as a woman who has raised children into adulthood.
     I've thought, at least if they are going to use my landscape as a salad bar, I should be able to take some great photos. Every day, I had the camera in the passenger's seat of the car, set with the correct exposure and the windows, rolled down. Nothing. Day after day my neighbor and husband would query, "Did you see them? Did you get them? They were just right there!" I was getting more irritated by the day.
     We recently watched a Discovery Show program "Moose Attack!" It showed videos and eye witness accounts of when moose that have wandered into urban areas became very dangerous. The program stated that moose don't stalk humans, but are very dangerous when they feel cornered or threatened. They will charge under those circumstances. Moose at their most dangerous are either males in rut or females with calves. Eighty-six percent of all calves die, so the mother moose has an enormous stake in protecting them. The film showed moose in postures clearly indicating that the beast felt threatened and was ready to attack. For example, the moose looked directly at the person, lowered its ears, pawed the ground, puffed up its chest and charged full on. The cautionary statement was, "If you see a moose do this, get the hell out of the way." I thought, "Well, duh! How stupid could anybody be? Anybody who didn't see the goring they got from those seven foot, fifty pound antlers had it coming."
     Then, yesterday I finally saw the phantom doe and fawns on my way out of our driveway. Suddenly, they were no longer the cloven hoofed rat menaces, but the most adorable, lovely thing you could ever want to see. And how could a person look at a face like that and shoot it? Or impale it with a tranquilizer gun or let their dog chase it or anything terrible? Huh? How could you? Watching them munch away blissfully on a prized azalea, I thought, "Oh you poor dear little creature! How will you ever get through the winter on those delicate legs? Maybe I'll get some corn or grain while I'm out and.................." Then, the mother appeared.

     I saw her before she saw me. Her head was partially obscured by branches. To see more of her, I crouched down in the middle of the driveway. When I did, she saw more of me, too - she did not like what she saw. When she perked her ears up I expected that she would turn and run. However, I was now between her and her fawns. She rose up in alert, then bent down to the ground. She pawed the ground three times with her left front hoof. She snorted and pawed again low to the ground, staring at me. Quickly making note of my own precarious position, I saw that she was in confrontation mode. I thought, "Oh crap! Moose Attack!" I could imagine the videos on the Internet of me, the middle aged woman who had been gored by an irate deer. "How stupid could she have been," viewers would ask. I could not move quickly unless I rolled, tricky to do with the camera, a long lens and a fat butt. The last time I had employed that maneuver was when I was doing barbed wire drills at Quanitco. I was a little rusty and not confident that I could protect my weapon, so I stood up. "Take it like a man!" I thought. When I stood, the doe spun on her heels, snorted again - as did each of the fawns, then off they tore through the woods. Another narrow escape from a wildlife photography catastrophe averted, I got in the car and went to Weed For Dollars.
She may be pretty, but she's a killer. Daily, deer must consume 500 times their own body weight in hostas and rhododendrons. Or so it seems.
This is a YouTube video of a moose that wandered into a building in Camden, Maine. It was part of the Moose Attack! program. 

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Wordless Wednesday - Heavenly Blue

On many photography sites I've noticed a feature called "Wordless Wednesday." I'm going to try to upload a single shot with nothing more than a title every Wednesday. Here's the first one. Let's see if I can keep my mouth shut.
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Sunday, August 8, 2010

"Look! It's It A Bird! It's A Plane! It's.......SUPERMOTH!" Hummingbird Sphinx Moth

Hummingbird or Clearwing Sphinx Moth
Last night, at a big party in Phippsburg, a lovely man asked me when I was going to post again, as I had not in five days.  He went on at some length about my past posts and how much he enjoyed them. He was animated in his descriptions of some of his favorites, all of which I found very flattering. As he told about the Bald eagle tearing the guts out of a rotting seal carcass and my tales of various wildlife image captures, I felt like a blushing school girl. Little did he know, that I already had this post in the works. And, by odd coincidence, I took these photographs the day before in his gardens!
     This is a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth, also called a Hummingbird Sphinx Moth. It's feeding on the nectar of a Monarda or Bee Balm. Using it's long proboscis to probe deep inside the flower, it feeds while hovering in flight. The side to side flight maneuver is called 'swing hovering,' a talent evolved only three times and only in nectar eaters: bats, birds and insects. Elephants do not do this, nor do any people I know, though I'd love to meet someone who does. It's an example of classic convergent evolution, when unrelated species have developed the same biological traits.
     This moth's wing span is about two inches, pretty big as insects in Maine go. Sphinx moths are the fastest flying insects on earth and having been clocked at 33 MPH! I don't know who figured that out, nor how. Were they raced around a closed track, wearing little saddles? Was some fat guy smoking a cigar standing by with a stop watch and a racing form?  "And they're OFF!" shouts the announcer as the gate snaps open. "It's Bizzy Bee on the inside, Hairy Hummer in the rear, Sticky Stan pulling into the lead!" I can smell the horse manure and dust...........snap out of it! These moths have never been confused with horses, to my knowledge. But, they are commonly mistaken for hummingbirds, thus the common names. Each year, someone tries to tell me that they are hummingbirds, which I consistently can demonstrate through photographs to not be true; many races are decided by a photo finish.
The moth's proboscis extends as much as two inches to get to the nectar.
There are 1,200 different kinds of these moths in the world. Maine only boasts two or three. The larval stage of one of Maine's species of Sphinx moths is the dreaded Tomato Horn Worm. The Tomato Horn worm can eat its way be a huge, 3-4 inches long as it devastates tomato plants. Posted by Picasa