Friday, April 11, 2014

Eastern Phoebes and Brown-headed Cowbirds

The Eastern Phoebes (Sayornis phoebe)  have returned from their winter grounds to breed.  They are one of my favorite birds to watch as they perch then perform aerial maneuvers to catch insects on the wing. They seem to prefer the trees and shrubs that abut the wooded area and stream behind our home.  Sometimes they will use the kids' pitchback as a resting spot, wagging their tails up and down before swooping off.

Eastern phoebe

Eastern phoebe

Eastern phoebe

These monogamous little fly-catchers build their nests of mud and dried plant materials often on ledges with overhead cover.  Last spring I came upon this phoebe nest while walking on a trail.  It was built on the roots of a tree which had been toppled after a storm.

The black arrow is pointing at the phoebe's nest

Close up of the phoebe's nest made of mud, dried grasses, pine needles and moss

I've noticed quite a few brown-headed cowbirds ( Molothrus ater ) around also.  These brood parasites often choose phoebe nests as the location for their eggs.

Male brown-headed cowbird

Drab gray female brown-headed cowbird on left; male brown-headed cowbird on right

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Vernal Pool Time

It was a long wait, but finally there has been activity at nearby vernal pools. Wood frogs  (Lithobates sylvaticus) were busy "quacking" and mating. Freeze-tolerant wood frogs have been overwintering beneath the leaf litter.  Watch this amazing video of  Wood frogs reviving in spring.

Wood frogs in amplexus

Wood frog

We saw only male spotted salamanders.  Females hadn't arrived yet.

Male spotted salamander swimming away.  Males have a noticeably swollen vent (cloaca).

Spotted salamander under water

Spotted salamander in leaf litter

Spotted salamander headed to the vernal pool

Spring peepers were chorusing loudly in a pond across the street from the vernal pool.  Four years ago, there were spring peepers at the vernal pool, but we no longer find them there.
Can you spot the spring peeper in the reeds? See a close-up shot below.

Male spring peeper calling

Click below to hear my recording of the spring peepers. Happy Spring!


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Hooded Mergansers

Two hooded mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) enjoyed a late afternoon swim and a bit of fishing at the cemetery pond today.  Females can be easily distinguished from males -- females are a warm orange brown with dark eyes while adult males in mating plumage are a striking black and white above and brown below. Adult males have yellow eyes.  At first, I thought these two were females, but after looking at these photos enlarged, their eyes seem too light colored.  I believe these are actually two immature males.

There's plenty to eat here, especially goldfish which gather in large numbers around the pond's many ledges.

Another frequent visitor is this great blue heron. Later, another heron arrived and awkwardly perched in a tree next to the pond but never joined in the fishing.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Eastern Comma Butterfly

Today I had an encounter with another overwintering butterfly -- the Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma). After several cool days, this Eastern Comma is taking advantage of today's sunny 58 degree weather and warming itself on my back deck.  Like the Mourning Cloak, this butterfly will hide from the harsh winter elements under tree bark or in various cavities.  At the first hint of spring warmth, it will emerge to bask in the sunshine and lay its first brood.  These butterflies are quite feisty and are known to fly at other butterflies and insects that invade their territory.   Host plants for their caterpillars include nettles, American elm, and hops.

Overwintering Mourning Cloak

I turned over this chunk of wood while hiking recently, not expecting to find much of anything as the cold weather has already set in.  

Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a mourning cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa). 

It's so well camouflaged that the edges of its wings are barely noticeable against the wood.

While most butterflies migrate or overwinter as eggs, larva or pupae, adult mourning cloaks find a spot under tree bark, in a hollow or another suitable crevice such as eaves of a house, where they remain through the winter in a state of diapause.  Like other creatures that overwinter, mourning cloaks are able to keep from freezing by building up glycerol, an "anti-freeze" in their bodies while also lowering their metabolic rate. It's amazing that such a fragile looking creature can withstand the fury of winter.  By overwintering, mourning cloaks gain by being the first butterflies of spring.  They may be seen drinking tree sap.  The females will lay eggs on host trees - birches, poplars and elms.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Ring-necked ducks

Just recently, ring-necked ducks (Aythya collaris) arrived at Baker's Meadow.  There are about five male/female pairs swimming about in the deeper parts of the pond.  They've come from warmer southern wintering grounds.  They are just stopping over on their way north to breed.  Unlike the dabbling mallards, ring-necked ducks can be seen diving underwater.  There's plenty of food here for them - lots of insect larvae, freshwater clams, and aquatic vegetation.  From a distance, the males appear black with a white ring at the base and near the tip of their beak.  In reality, their heads are overlaid with irridescent purple. The females are brown with a white beak ring.  The "ring neck" in their name comes from a dark brown ring around the male's neck which is difficult to see from a distance.  Look closely and you can see the ring in the photo below.

Both have gold colored eyes, but the female also sports a white eye ring.

The ring-necked ducks must share the pond with quite a few bossy Canada geese.  Lucky for them, the mute swans seem to be absent.