Sunday, August 17, 2014

Mothday


Snowberry Clearwing Moth
Although yesterday was Pet/Butterfly Day at Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve, my favorite finds were two moths which can be seen during the day. The clearwing moth flies and moves just like hummingbirds. Like them, they can remain suspended in the air in front of a flower while they unfurl their long tongues and insert them in flowers to sip their nectar. They even emit an audible hum like hummingbirds. I've seen them called both hummingbird and bumble bee moths, since they mimic those two fliers.
Snowberry Clearwing Moth
Hummingbird moths are rather plump; the tip of their tail opens into a fan. They are usually of a rich reddish brown color, at least in part. Like all Lepidoptera their wings are covered by scales; some species lose many of the scales from patches on their wings, so they are called clearwing hummingbird moths. Like most moths they have a very long tongue which they carry rolled under their chins and that they use to reach the nectar of long-necked flowers. Such nectar is inaccessible to many other flower visitors, so it seems that these flowers prefer long tongued pollinators and try to keep the others away. 
Bumblebee Moth vs Bumblebee

The adult Bumblebee Moth will feed on their larval food plants, honeysuckle and snowberry, for nectar. They also will get nectar from milkweed, Monardella, and some thistles. Monardella is an excellent garden plant for butterflies as well as Moths. It has perennial and annual forms from white to purple flowers. It also has a fresh minty scent. The one I saw was feeding on butterfly bush.
Luna Moth
This Luna moth was found on the side of the Field House, near the big security light that shines all night.  Although rarely seen due to their very brief (1 week) adult lives, Luna Moths are considered common in some areas, but uncommon in others. As with all Saturniidae, the adults do not eat or have mouths. They emerge as adults solely to mate, and as such, only live approximately one week. They are more commonly seen at night.
Luna moth male - large antennae
They have huge wingspans of 3 - 4 inches. The males are distinguished from the females by their larger and wider antennae, all the better to detect the pheromones of the female. Luna Moth caterpillars are lime green with orange spots running down both sides.  The  caterpillars feed on several types of trees, including, alder, beeches, cherries, hazelnut, hickories, pecan, persimmon, sweet gum, and willows. The caterpillar molts five times before settling on a host plant where they spin their cocoon.male Luna Moths release a chemical at night which attracts males. Adults die shortly after mating or laying eggs.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Gold on the Wing

Everyone loves the bright yellow American Goldfinch, right? They molt twice a year, unlike most birds, so the outstanding male changes from sunshine yellow to a dull greenish-yellow, just like the female, for the winter months. That's why it seems that they've all gone away, although they stick around Kentucky all year.
I used to put out a separate feeder filled with nyger thistle for them, but they would never eat it. I even bought a new feeder and new thistle, thinking it had gone bad, but they still ignored it. They do enjoy sunflower seeds though.
I've seen a great increase in Goldfinches in our yard since we started planting zinnias and native wildflowers though. Goldfinches are seed eaters, of course. Most seed eating birds will also catch insects for their chicks, to give them extra protein and perhaps calcium. Goldfinches, however, have adapted to a completely vegetarian diet, feeding only seeds to their chicks. They also nest latter in the summer, when a good supply of seeds are available. If a Cowbird lays her egg in their nest, the chick doesn't live long because it can't survive on a diet of only seeds.
I love watching them sway on the zinnia stems in the wind, as they pull off the petals to reach the tiny little zinnia seeds at the base of the flower. The little yellow ring at the top is the true flower of zinnias, and grows higher as the season progresses, leaving seeds at the bottom.
They also like the tiny seeds in black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, bee balm, and cup plants, so I don't dead head these plants when they finish blooming.
Although they aren't native plants, zinnias are quickly becoming one of my favorite flowers. They are brightly colored, and attract colorful birds and insects. Even Hummingbirds come to drink the nectar from them, which really surprised me, since they don't have the traditional long neck I expect hummers to favor.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Good Ol' Summertime

This summer has been particularly busy, it seems. All my normal activities - volunteering at Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve, volunteering at Raptor Rehab of KY (my regular Monday shift and programs)- have been squashed between traveling on vacation, 2 out of state weddings, and Mothapalooza in Ohio. We enjoyed all of them, but it's hard to catch your breath with so much going on.
Of course, Nana Days with our almost-3-year-old grandson are always fun. He's a very good helper around the house and yard. We filled the feeders, went to get more seed, then he wanted to look through little binoculars and watch the birds. Are we starting him right or what! Dick has his share of all this too, plus traveling to Missouri to visit an elderly aunt. We heard last night that she has passed on, so Dick was so glad he went when he had the chance. All this, plus working in the garden to keep it beautiful, have made it difficult to just sit back and relax, enjoying said garden. Sigh.
But today everyone has gone somewhere else, and I am alone, sitting on our porch, trying to quietly read and watch the birds and flowers at the same time. Mostly, I see little brown sparrows and finches. Once in a while, every thing takes flight, and I wonder if the Cooper's Hawk is nearby to spook them.
 If some of my pictures look a little fuzzy, it's because I end up taking them through the dirty windows. You know how it is...as soon as you step outside, the bird flies away.
Dick has worked to hard to turn our back yard into a mini-nature preserve in the last few years, and very successfully I might add. We have habitat for many kinds of critters....
...even if we only see evidence of their presence. Looks like a raccoon may have dined on poke berries that gave him diarrhea.
We started planting Kentucky native plants to make a butterfly garden, and for several years we saw many different kinds all summer long. But this year, the numbers for all species are way down. I've seen one monarch so far, and this is the first spicebush swallowtail for the summer.
 We still have lots of native bees, both large and small.
While deadheading the day lilies yesterday, one of the leaves moved as I neared it. Whoops! This isn't a leaf, but a praying mantis - Dick's favorite insect! I've researched them, and find that they can catch at eat Hummingbirds!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mothapalooza!

Promethea Moth
If you think birders are single minded, wait till you attend your first event with moth lovers! We just returned home from the 2nd Annual Mothapalooza, held at Burr Oak State Park in Southeastern Ohio, and sponsored by the Ohio Division of Wildlife. Jim McCormac works for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, specializing in non-game wildlife diversity issues, especially birds, and prior to that, he was a botanist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. We know Jim from several other Ohio nature outings, and anything he's involved in will be fantastic. We know next to nothing about moths, so I just wanted to broaden my horizons and get some cool photos, if possible. Mission accomplished!
Giant Leopard Moth
Butterflies are colorful and fun to follow among the bright summer flowers. Moths can sometimes be colorful, but often are not. Some are active during the daytime, but most are active at night. One speaker gave a great comparison between butterflies and moths, and says it's still hard to tell them apart sometimes. An estimated 160,000 species of moths have been cataloged worldwide, with new species added annually, even in Ohio. There are at least 20 times more moth species than butterfly species! The folks we met this weekend can rattle off the Latin and common names, followed by the taxonomy of most species we found. Very impressive! You think birds are tough to ID, given differences between male, female and juvenile? Try moths, then caterpillars with multiple "instars," or molting. If he finds a caterpillar he doesn't recognize, a moth-er will take it home to raise and see what it turns into as an adult. Disclaimer: if you actually know something about moth identification, and I goofed on any of these, please let me know. I have a whole bunch of "mystery moths" that I can't find at all in a book.
At the Sheet
Each evening, the keynote speakers told us more about studying moths. You too, they emphasized, can discover a brand new moth never seen before. It happens every day. Just set up a sheet with a bright light, maybe a black light, and the moths will come to you - along with lots of other night insects. Some moths are huge, colorful and easy to photograph. Others, however, are know as micromoths, due to their very, very small size. Always carry a small bright flashlight and magnifying glass.
Rosy Maple Moth
Some moth names reflect the activities of either the moth or caterpillar. This incredible pink and yellow Rosy Maple moth should be easily found by predators, you would think. But against red maple seeds, it blends right in. Jim McCormac gave some wonderful sessions on photographing moths. His big message was to avoid the "white sheet of death," whenever possible. If you are just going for a mug shot for identification purposes, yes, you'll have to photograph on the sheet.
Io Moth
But when everyone else has gotten their shot, put your finger in front of the bigger moths. They are surprisingly cooperative and will climb on your finger to be moved to a more natural location. . Many moths sit with their forewings closed, covering the hindwings. Tap their thorax (as a predator might do) and they will open up to flash those crazy false eyes like this Io! Oh, always spray yourself well before going out. I'm dying of chigger bites right now. And don't forget to put a spare camera battery in your pocket. Using the flash will wear the battery out quickly.
Moth camouflage
Camouflage is the best way to survive if you are a moth. How many moths do you see here?
Blinded Sphinx Moth
How about this guy?
Feathery Antennae
Of course, moths are renowned for their beautiful feathery antennae. Once you have the mug shot for identification purposes, Jim says, see if you can focus in on the head and antennae for some really dramatic photos.
Not so feathery antennae
Night feeding
One of our speakers specializes in moth behavior. If you just set up a light and sheet, she says, you miss much of the natural behaviors still to be discovered. So we followed her out into a field full of milkweed at midnight, flashlights in hand, so see what they were up to. Some moths will eat as adults, using a long proboscis to get nectar, while others don't eat at all as adults. Many plants are pollinated by moths as much as any other kind of pollinator. (I think this field was also full of the chiggers that started feeding on me!)
Painted Lichen Moth
Some moths look like beetles to me, such as this Lichen moth. Of course there were many other kinds of insects, including actual beetles, on the sheets, so sometimes the decision was - umm, not a moth! The littler moths, flies, beetles, and who knows what  might sit quietly on the sheet, or they might buzz around flying into your eyes and ears!
Tree Frog
One of our mothing sites was actually at the home of an organizer, where she has planted acres of natural plants. If you plant it, they will come! Copes Tree Frogs were out in force, croaking incredibly loud songs!
video


At home, we rarely go out at night, so we miss the other world that comes to life then. The motto on the official t-shirt says it all - "Welcome to the dark side!" At least three raccoons checked out the garbage can at the lodge while we waited for the shuttle to take us to the sheet sites.
Spider with egg sac
This mother spider is carrying all her children around. Except for the white egg sac, which resembles a golf ball, she was invisible against the tree bark.
Imperial Moth
The native plants in our yard are all in full bloom now. We may try setting up some lights some night to see what we can find at home. But, I think we'll stick to birding as our primary activity. We need our sleep!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Birding on the River

I began my career as a volunteer about 10 years ago at the Falls of the Ohio, spending the cool mornings on the observation deck, showing visitors the fossils to look for, and really enjoying the birding. So I headed back for the Falls when a notice came that a Black-bellied Plover in breeding plumage had been seen there.  I didn't find the plover, but did enjoy quietly watching the birds.
The water is much more shallow at the Falls than anywhere else on the Ohio River. Fish migrating upstream must come this way, since they can't swim through the locks and canal on the other side. Masses of Great Blue Herons and Black-crowned Night Herons stand in the rushing water, patiently waiting for a fish to come by. If you watch long enough, you will see large fish leaping out of the water, just like the nature documentaries about Alaska.
But my favorite bird is the Turkey Vulture. They roost nearby, and as the sun warms the exposed rocks, he warm air currents give them a boost into the sky. So every morning at the same time, you see all of them circling to gain altitude. Of course, sometimes they don't need to look far for a carcass. When fish run into the dam, their bodies float downstream landing on the banks of the fossil beds, and the vultures begin to feast!
Sometimes a small bird chases the larger vulture away. Don't they know that TV's only eat dead stuff?
video
Yes, vultures are my favorite birds.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Engine that Could

All Aboard! at Antonito, CO Station
If you like trains at all, you will love the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, which reflects much of the history of railroads in the west. It is a narrow gauge train (3 feet between the rails, instead of the standard 4 feet 8 inches), built in 1880 as part of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. The narrow gauge allows the train to make tighter turns in the mountains, and reduced construction costs. We traveled from 7888 feet in elevation at Antonito, CO, to the 10,015 feet Cumbres Pass, then down to 7863 feet at Chama, NM.
We left the station at 10 am, stopped for a full lunch midway, and arrived at the Chama by 4:30. Then we boarded a luxurious motor coach, returning to our cars in Antonito in about an hour. As you can see, this is not a rapid mode of transportation, but it was lots of fun!

Trip Route
 In the mountains, a train cannot take a straight route to arrive at its destination. Steel wheels slide on steel tracks if the grade is too steep, so the tracks wind around and around, going up one side of a canyon then down the other. You can often see the track zip-zagging behind you. Oh, what you hear as a child is true. A steam locomotive really does say "I think I can, I think I can" on the way up a hill!
At first, the landscape was dry and flat. A small group of pronghorn antelopes raced us for a while, and eventually veered aside. "Wild" cattle graze on the free range, staring without curiosity as a train passes. We learned that the different patterns of the whistle mean different things.  Four long blasts, for example, means only 5 minutes remain before departure. Elk and mule deer were visible too.

 Going up the mountain requires more coal in the engine to fire up the steam locomotive, and the wind blows it from one side of the train to the other, and in through any open windows. There is no escaping it. But I couldn't stop thinking about all the Westerns I've seen with trains, and even a few non-Westerns. There's no way anyone (other than a stunt man) could run from car to car on a train like this. The cars jiggle back and forth too much. I kept picturing Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future III, as the train raced toward the gorge, with the school ma'rm hanging from the side of the engine. Actually, this train has been used for many movies over the years.
Observation Car
The Observation Car is nothing like the one we rode on AmTrak in Oregon last summer. This one is an open car - open to the sun, the wind, and every bit of smoke and soot from the engine. However, it was also the best place for photos. By the time we stopped for lunch I was filthy. I'm so glad we don't have to use coal for transportation and home heating anymore. The smell and dirt were incredible.
Cliff Swallow
About half way, we stopped for a huge lunch, meeting the train coming from the other direction. Got a little birding in at this stop. They put up wire netting to stop the swallows from nesting under the eaves, but it doesn't stop these little birds at all! I have a new respect for those men who built and worked on the railroad - we went through a tunnel in stone that was 1.5 billion years old at one spot, and through more recent volcanic ash in another place.
Toltec Gorge
The Toltec Gorge is 600 feet deep, and we moved with no room for error before a drop straight down. The slopes looked distinctly unstable in several spots. They no longer run the train during the winter, but when it was a commercial venture, they had to plow in the winter. I can't imagine the conditions.
 After Cumbres Pass, we slowly crept down through glacial valleys and winding trout streams. With each change in elevation, the aspen trees changed - fully green at the lower levels, up to no leaves at all in the higher mountains. I could hear the little leaves calling "Go away, nasty train! Cough! Cough!" It was a great trip, but I was so glad to get in the shower when we got back to the condo!


Here are all the videos I took, sliced together. See if you can find the antelope!

Monday, June 02, 2014

Aldo Leopold Pilgrimmage

Aldo Leopold Cabin - Tres Piedras, NM
Most people have heard of the leaders in the conservation movement - John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, and Rachel Carson. Yet few people have heard of one of the most influential voices of the 20th Century, Aldo Leopold, author of Sand County Almanac.  In 1912-1913, he worked for the Forest Service here, and built a house for $650. He didn't live in it long, and it decayed over the 100 years since he lived there.


Aldo Leopold is Dick's hero. We went to the Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, WI, and he returned for training as a Land Ethics Leader. He has presented the movie Green Fire many times, to acquaint people in Kentucky with Leopold's works. He ran across this video on YouTube about the restoration of Leopold's New Mexico house, so we called the Forest Service ranger station and arranged to visit it this morning. Not just a "visit," but more like a pilgrimage for my dear husband.
Front Porch View
Just imagine living here when there were no cars on the road, nor power lines interrupting your view of the snow capped mountains on the horizon. We don't know for sure why he left so soon, Dick plans to look into that.
Leopold Living Room
On a cold autumn day, he would come in from the barn, after taking care of his horse, and warm up before a fire in the living room.

After dinner, he might sit at his small desk, typing a report or just his thoughts on the day. He was a lifelong hunter and fisherman, and kept detailed logs of where he went and what he found there each day.
Dick on Leopold Bench
For my husband, this was an emotional day, re-living experiences of his hero. Not many even have a hero, let alone get to visit parts of his life. 
Green-tailed Towhee
While at the ranger station, another couple came in early this morning. They were birders, they announced, and were looking for Grace's Warblers and Grey Vireos reported nearby on eBird. Dick and I smiled. We've had this happen before on vacation. After introducing ourselves, we invited Mack and Aram from Maine, to meet the spirit of Aldo Leopold at the cabin, then we'd go birding with them. Off we drove on the unpaved Forest Service roads up into the mountains. I'm so glad this car we rented has good options for low gear driving in the mountains! I sure used them today. They stopped and we pulled over too. "We heard Grace," they said. I was very impressed with these folks, who had driven down from birding in Colorado already. They knew Virginia's Warbler, Grace's Warbler and Grey Vireos by song only! I saw a bird in a tree, but it was a Robin - you never expect to see these familiar birds in unfamiliar locations. Another bird shook the branches and Aram declared - Green Tailed Towhee! I needed it to make a Towhee hat trick, and we chased it around until I saw it.
Western Bluebird
After the thrill of the chase wore down, we decided to return to Leopold's cabin and eat lunch on his porch. The breeze was pleasant and the view spectacular. But I put my sandwich down when I saw this little Western Bluebird (a first) on the branch not 10 feet away. Does it look like this bird has a brood patch on its belly?  Females pull out some feathers so bare skin can be on the eggs during incubation. I think this looks like a male, but maybe they sit on the eggs too.
Cassin's Vireo
Mack and Aram searched for Grey Vireos on the mountain. Now, I'll be honest. When it comes to sparrows and vireos (among others) I think they all look the same. But I can recognize the cadence of a vireo call, so when I heard one from the porch, I browsed through my phone app for New Mexico vireos, trying the various calls to see what matched. Glorioski! This little bird came zooming up to the same tree just vacated by the Bluebird, and challenged me to mortal combat! Not only did he respond to the Cassin's Vireo call, he matches all the descriptions. Ah, victory is sweet, but I left him as the winner after a few good photos. Thanks, little bird! That makes 4 life birds today - the Green Tailed Towhee, Grace's Warbler, Western Bluebird and Cassin's Vireo. Life is good!