Friday, May 29, 2009


Amazing changes have occurred in the robin nest in the past four days. I just got a chance to photograph the chicks after all the rain we've had recently. Compare this photo with the last one posted on May 28th (photo was actually taken on May 25). Not only has their body size increased quite a bit, but the chicks are now completely covered in pin feathers and their eyes are now open. Their mother always makes sure they're stuffed before she ventures out for her evening meal. One chick did slowly open his mouth for food when it saw me.

The chicks have gotten so large that they take up the whole nest. During the day, the mom comes and sits on the edge of the nest to keep watch. She only sits on the babies when it's stormy or overnight when the temperature drops.


We are a family of frog lovers. 2008 was the Year of the Frog, a year dedicated to increasing the world's awareness of the plight of frogs and other amphibians. These fascinating creatures are under constant threat of extinction brought on by disease (chytridiomycosis - a highly contagious fungal disease), pollution, and habitat destruction.

As the owner of two captive bred poison dart frogs, I can attest to their intriguing "personalities" and behaviors. Creating a vivarium for them to live in has also been an enriching learning experience for me and my children.

This is Tarzan, our Dyeing Poison Dart Frog (Dendrobates tinctorius). His large heart-shaped front toe pads are indicative of males. Whenever he's on the hunt chasing fruitflies, the toes twitch with excitement. These colorful frogs hail from Guyana, French Guiana, Surinam, and Brazil. They are fairly large (can be more than 2") and prefer to live on the forest floor among leaf litter. Tarzan is quite bold and curious and likes to sit up on logs and rocks and survey his kingdom.

Here is his tank mate Jane, a female auratus (Dendrobates auratus). Auratus originate in Central America in Nicaragua and Panama. Like Tincs, they are primarily terrestrial frogs. One of the fascinating features of PDFs is the number of variants or morphs. Janey's appearance closely resembles that of the Canal Zone morphs found in the wild along both sides of the Panama Canal.

For excellent up-to-date information on poison dart frogs around the world, visit

Get involved! You can help save the frogs. Calling all poets - Enter the Save the Frogs Poetry Contest at

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Newest chick pic

Babies are doing fine and now have pin feathers developing on their tiny wings. It has been cold and rainy the last two days, so I haven't been able to get an update since this picture was taken over the Memorial Day weekend. I'll try again tomorrow when things clear up and mom goes in search of food.
There have been a couple of nice benefits to having the robins nest so close to the house. First of all, they want to stay nearby and so are feeding from the yard and best of all, from my vegetable garden. Hopefully they're keeping the garden free of beetles, grubs and other pests. Secondly, the parents chase away other unwanted visitors who venture near the deck. This morning we witnessed the male robin harrassing a chipmunk which had come onto the deck. He managed to chase it off the deck and out of the yard. Good job, dad!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Spicebush Swallowtail

Telltale signs that the swallowtail was ready to break through its chrysalis were evident this past Saturday morning. The morphed body was pressing tightly against its outer form and the butterfly's colors were darker and showing through.

We waited about 5 weeks, but at last the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) has emerged. What a spectacular sight! Shimmery black with beautiful irridescent colors and a wingspan of almost 4 inches. I think it's a male since it has both blue and green coloring.

The Spicebush Swallowtail is found along the Eastern United States. Its host plants are the spicebush and sassafras.

Today, it goes free.

And then there were two...

The singleton robin has a nest mate! There appears to be only 2 chicks in this nest. Must have miscounted the eggs. Both are doing well. Every day more white fluff appears on their naked bodies.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Baby Robin is Here!

Yesterday I checked the nest, and one chick has hatched! It looks like it's a couple of days old. Any shake of the nest and it opens its tiny yellow beak nice and wide toward the sky.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


A pair of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) has built a nest in a large bush next to the stairs of our back deck. We have had the opportunity to watch the building process, see the finished empty nest fill with blue eggs, and observe the parents' behavior.

The empty nest, is made mostly of twigs and dried grasses and lined with wet leaves and mud. It seemed that the female did the majority of the building work.

At last count, there were four eggs.

Here's mom diligently hatching her brood. The duller colored female robin spends most of her time on the nest while her more darkly colored mate searches for food and stands guard in a nearby tree. It takes about 2 weeks for the eggs to hatch, so we should be seeing chicks soon.

Robins are the largest members of the thrush family in the United States. While some migrate to warmer parts for the winter, many stay on if there is adequate food and shelter. Most people think of robins as worm eaters, but they also enjoy grubs and other insects as well as berries. When my husband and I lived in Naples, Florida during the early 1990's, we would see huge flocks of robins during the winter gorging themselves on red berries from bushes along the sides of the road. It appeared that the berries made them "drunk."
Robins are part of Cornell University's Ornithology department's Urban Birds Project. Visit the site at to see all their citizen science programs. No need to be a bird expert. These projects are great for classroom use. The data you collect and send in will be used for research.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Of butterflies...and moths...and catfish

While sitting in the school carpool line a couple of days ago, I overheard an exchange between a mother and her young son as they headed back to their car from the playground. Nearing the fence, the little boy (about 5 years old) exclaimed, "Look, mommy, a butterfly!" and pointed excitedly at a small white butterfly. "No, no," the mother responded. "That's not a butterfly, it's a moth. Butterflies have pretty colors." The boy kept insisting it was indeed a butterfly, but his mother continued on with her misguided explanation of how butterflies are always beautiful and moths are plain. In this case, the 5 year old was correct. The butterfly he had been watching was a cabbage white butterfly.

Yikes! Instead of providing inaccurate information, just explain that you're not sure if it is a butterfly or what the difference between a butterfly and a moth is. This creates a perfect opportunity for some simple investigation together. Information sources are everywhere. Kids love searching through field guides or looking up facts on the internet. Don't make it up - look it up!

This reminds me of the time my family and I were viewing tropical fish swimming in one of the floor to ceiling aquariums at Atlantis in Nassau, Bahamas. A little girl standing nearby repeatedly asked her mom, "What kind of fish is that? And how about that one?" After a couple of minutes of not answering, the mother replied with an exasperated drawl, "Oh honey, they're aaall catfish."

So, what is the difference between a butterfly and a moth? (I'll deal with catfish in another post). Here are a few distinguishing factors:

  • Butterflies are active during the day; moths are active at night.

  • Butterflies have clubbed or knobbed antennae; moths have feathery, straight or branched antennae
  • Butterfly bodies are smooth; moths are plump and fuzzy

  • Butterflies rest with their wings held upright; moths rest with their wings held out horizontally
In general, butterflies are more colorful than moths. But that is not a criteria for distinguishing between the two. Here's an example of a beautiful moth called the Hummingbird Clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe). They are common in North America and often visit my flowers in the summertime. This one came frequently to a basket of petunias I kept hanging by the back door.

Want to know more about butterflies and moths? Check out

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Bringing Up Babies

We're expecting! Lots of critter babies, that is. In the last two days, six of our painted lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) have emerged from their chrysalises; we're still waiting for a slow-poke to emerge. My two children and I did this same butterfly project about five years ago and it never gets old. It's fascinating to watch the scrawny black catepillars grow fat as they eat their way toward becoming pupa. We know they're about to form their cocoons when they travel to the top of the container and attach themselves by their tail end. Hanging head down, the catepillars shed their black prickly coats in the next 1-2 days. They stay in this position for about 7 to 10 more days, their bodies dark and shiny and packed tightly in the chrysalis. It's possible to see tiny spots of orange color through the chrysalis before the butterflies are ready to emerge. This photo shows a butterfly still inside its chrysalis (dark one at right) as well as empty opened cocoons.

The newly hatched butterflies are very vulnerable. Their abdomens are filled with fluid called meconium which they begin to expell soon after emerging. The sight of the red liquid dripping from their bodies can be disturbing, especially to young children who may think the butterflies are bleeding to death. According to the care sheet we received with our catepillars, the liquid is excess fluid that was not needed to fill the butterflies' wing veins.

For their first few hours, the butterflies unfurl and stretch their wings and proboscis (straw-like tongue). Then they flit around and begin feeding from a sugar water soaked cotton ball. As soon as the outdoor temperature reaches a steady 65 degrees or more, we will release the butterflies. Painted ladies are very common, preferring open meadow areas. They also like to feed from thistle plants. Life is short for the painted lady. They will reach adulthood withing 2-4 weeks, during which they will mate and lay eggs. The last time we raised painted ladies, the weather was unsettled and cooler than normal. We ended up keeping the butterflies longer than expected. Within a couple of weeks, mating was occuring and their mesh home was covered with tiny eggs.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Spring Fever

At the farm where I volunteer for a therapy riding program, the pond surrounded by riding trails has come alive with the warm weather. I first noticed these snakes last week and brought my camera with me to photograph them this morning. I figured they would be in the same place on the bank of the pond and, sure enough, there they were basking in the warmth of the sun. Just as before, the smaller snake was draped across the coils of the much larger one. After I had snapped a few photos, they had had enough of my intrusion. They quickly turned and slipped off into the pond.

It wasn't until they were swimming away that I noticed a medium sized snake hiding in the plants nearby. As I pulled back a leaf to get in closer, the snake actually came closer toward me. It seemed curious about something that was in the grass near my feet. Within minutes, it had turned toward the water. I followed it as it swam along the edge of the pond and saw that it met up with the other two snakes. They entwined their bodies for a moment as they swam together, then headed toward another warm spot along the bank.
Last week I wasn't quite sure what these snakes were and they appeared much blacker than they did today. These are, in fact, Northern Water snakes (Nerodia sipedon). I had seen this species before in a stream in Connecticut, but those snakes had been a much lighter brown color. I was surprised to learn the many color variants of this snake. I think the red colored bands contrasting against the dark upper scales is especially beautiful. The Northern Water snake can grow to be 40+ inches in length, but generally are in the 22-40 inch range. They are nonvenomous, but are sometimes mistaken for the venomous cottonmouth or water moccassin. Northern water snakes primarily feed on small creatures found in or near the water such as fish, frogs, toads, and salamanders.

I suspect that the snakes I found are in the throes of courtship and mating. Females are live bearers and will give birth in August or September to 20-40 babies. I'll be keeping my eye out for this little group in the future.