Summer Meadows Magnified

Examined closely, summer meadows reveal a great variety of wildflowers and insect activity. These habitats are most appealing to me on sunny, damp mornings when there is a chill in the air (slows down the bugs so I can get at ’em!), but they’re worth visiting just about anytime. In the heat of the day, meadows can be pleasantly noisy (?) with the humming wing beats of many thousands of bees working flower to flower!

Knapweed (Centaurea) has just started to bloom, is attracting large numbers of honeybees and skippers, and will soon be the most abundant flower in the landscape. Bee-keepers know this plant, as it is a major food source for the honeybees in their colonies. Bedstraw (Galium) is everywhere and Birdsfoot Trefoil (Lotus) is scattered about in small patches. The latter is a member of the Pea family, useful in agriculture (hay), conservation (land reclamation) and wildlife management (food plots).

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Birdsfoot Trefoil

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Skipper on Birdsfoot Trefoil

 

 

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Honeybee on Knapweed

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Buttercup entangled in Bedstraw

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Skipper on Knapweed

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Vultures in the Sun

Recently I took an early morning trip to investigate a wetland natural area and discovered Turkey Vultures en route. At first the dark objects in the farm field ahead appeared to be Wild Turkeys, but as I got close enough to see spread wings it was clear that they were a flock of vultures preparing for flight.

They loafed around on the ground for perhaps an hour, some preening, some with spread wings. As the morning sun got higher and warmer, a single bird would occasionally take off, fly in a small, low circle, and rejoin the group on the ground, as though testing flight conditions and readiness. Eventually, all became airborne, soaring effortlessly out of sight.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Shrubs in Bloom

In late June and early July, the flowers of native and exotic shrubs dominate open areas, including forest edges, roadsides and abandoned fields that are in the early stages of woody plant colonization.

Two species in bloom now are Red-panicle or Gray-stemmed Dogwood (Cornus racemosa; peak bloom) and Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora; past peak bloom).

Gray-stemmed Dogwood is a native, thicket-forming shrub with attractive white flower clusters in early summer and white fruit on branched, red stalks in autumn. A large variety of insects are working the flowers now, and birds will devour the fruit when ripe.

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Red-panicle or Gray-stemmed Dogwood in bloom

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Red-panicle or Gray-stemmed Dogwood in bloom

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Ctenuchid Moth on Gray-stemmed Dogwood blossoms

Multiflora Rose is an exotic species of shrub that also has the ability to grow as a vine if adjacent woody plants provide support. Once planted for erosion control, living fences and wildlife habitat, it is now considered to be invasive. Attractive, fragrant flowers develop into clusters of small, red fruits that persists well into the winter.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Songbirds Raising Kids!

Good wildlife photographers invariably capture spectacular images of the large predatory birds – eagles, osprey, herons and the like – caring for their young. I appreciate great photography but sometimes it drives me crazy! I don’t have those shots! I’m just beginning to tackle the challenge and to date my inventory is limited to the more common songbirds that can be reached with a little stealth, some patience and a modest telephoto lens. To paraphrase John Gierach, my favorite fishing author, when asked why he spends so much time catching small trout on a fly rod: “catching small trout all day long is a lousy job, but somebody’s gotta do it”.

My featured species in this post are the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina), Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula), Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) and Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). Images aside, I’ve learned much and laughed often on these shoots and hope others have a similar experience.

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European Starling feeding an insect to one of its young (at least three in all)

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Chipping Sparrow on a garden fence, prepared to feed young birds, invisible in the dense raspberry bushes below

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Adult Grackle about to feed a fledgling with cracked corn gathered from a nearby feeder (1 of 2)

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Fledgling and adult Grackle; the adult has closed its nictitating membrane, an eyelid that lubricates and protects the eye, to prevent injury from the sharp beak of the fledgling as food is inserted into its mouth

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Adult male Baltimore Oriole with an insect morsel for its fledged young below

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Immature Baltimore Oriole

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Adult Catbird about to feed fledged young

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Fledgling Catbird

I’ll finish with the photos that I took this morning. A combination of sun, ground fog and heavy dew got me moving early. I was hoping to see the resident White-tailed Deer fawns, but knew that I’d return with something on my memory card even if they couldn’t be found.

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I usually check nest boxes from a distance while I’m walking and noticed a head sticking out of one that appeared to be a young Tree Swallow. I got comfortable in the tall grass and weeds and watched. The young swallow in the opening – now nearly the size of its parents – appeared to be restless and about to leave the nest. I thought I could see the tip of a second beak at times, evidence that a sibling had the same urge and perhaps was trying to expedite things. I took many photos as the bird moved back and forth in the opening of the box, as though it would decide to go for it, then have second thoughts. A parent was perched 100 feet away and 30 feet up, in the top of a spruce tree, seemingly ignoring all of us.

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Young Tree Swallow about to fledge

After a half hour of deliberation, the youngster chirped and bolted, just like that. In the blink of an eye, it was out and airborne. It hung up and thrashed briefly in the tall grass in front of the box (the last photo), then soared up, up and away. After sitting for days on end in a cramped, stuffy nest box, and having no tutorial or pre-flight orientation, it just flew. What an amazing feat of nature. Oh, as soon as it soared, the parents swooped in to drive me away. I left, but returned an hour later and found an empty box.

As you might have guessed by now, the fledgling caught me off-guard, flew right at me at point-blank range, and the perfect shot will have to wait.

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Fledgling Tree Swallow a few feet from its nest box, airborne for the first time

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Dragonflies: the Widow Skimmer

One of my favorite summer activities is observing and photographing the colorful summer fliers – butterflies, moths, dragonflies and damselflies. The process of obtaining a good photograph of one of these insects is satisfying and educational: much of what I’ve learned about photographing wildlife and nature came from this quest, experimenting with aperture, speed, focal length, shooting angles, etc., in pursuit of dynamic subjects in ever-changing background settings.

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Widow Skimmer, female or immature male

 

One group of dragonflies is particularly photogenic: the skimmers. Several species are large, colorful, very common and tend to forage in fields, forest edges and clearings, far from their wetland habitats. Consequently, I usually have close encounters with them while hiking and have ample opportunities to photograph.

In this post I’ll feature the Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), a species that can be found over much of the U.S.and into southern Canada.

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Widow Skimmer, female or immature male

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Widow Skimmer

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Widow Skimmer, female or immature male

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Widow Skimmer, male

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Widow Skimmer, male

The skimmers, like other dragonflies and damselflies, are powerful, highly maneuverable fliers and voracious predators. They consume huge quantities of flying insects such as gnats, flies and mosquitoes, and are therefore more than just a “pretty face”!

Photos by NB Hunter. ©  All Rights Reserved.

Sidetracked

Yesterday I had a six-hour window to haul firewood from my woodlot to the house before a week of rainy weather would make the old wagon trail too soft for truck access. I had my camera on the front seat of the truck and allowed myself to get sidetracked a few times and capture a bit of the activity around me.

At this time of year, many of the wet, open places in my woodlot are dominated by a coarse, two- to five- foot tall herbaceous plant called Hellebore. (Veratum viride). It has a sturdy stalk and huge leaves but the terminal flower clusters aren’t much to look at. They’re small, yellow-green flowers that rarely seem to attract a lot of insects. Yesterday was an exception: I spotted a White Admiral butterfly working the flowers on a patch of Hellebore next to my work area and captured the moment.

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White Admiral butterfly on Hellebore flowers

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When turning my truck around in a damp, weedy opening, I happened to notice movement just beyond the front wheel. I had disturbed a Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica), which leaped up from the wet ground cover, landed on a stump and posed briefly for a photo. This amphibian, common in the U.S. and Canada, is easily identified by its dark mask (a “robber’s mask”). Most of my close encounters with Wood Frogs occur in early spring, when they create quite a spectacle, moving to vernal pools as soon as the ice is gone to call, breed and lay eggs.

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Wood Frog

The humid, 90-degree weather took its toll – coming down the hill to the house with my 5th load of wood, I was desperately in need of a diversion. I walked into a brushy field, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Great Crested Flycatchers feeding their young, but instead found a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) perched in a Balsam Fir tree, singing. Just the break I needed!

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Song Sparrow

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Forget-me-nots

Forget-me-nots ((Myosotis) are common in wet places and thrive in partial shade as well as sun. Typical habitats are flood plains and swamps. The tiny flowers, pale blue with a yellow center, need to be seen with magnification to be fully appreciated (they’re only 1/4 inch or so in width).

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.