Birds at the Marsh

Tall cattails, small, weedy ponds choked with lilies and an old beaver dam characterize a local wetland that I often visit in the morning. Like most healthy wetlands, it is teeming with life and full of surprises!

A flock of Cedar Waxwings, perched briefly on a snag at the edge of the beaver dam; they were feeding on air-borne insects above the adjacent pond.

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Cedar Waxwings

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Cedar Waxwing

I was set up in the woody shrub thicket colonizing the inactive beaver dam, in the midst of a family of Song Sparrows. This one was a bit upset with me, but not to the point of leaving its perch.

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Song Sparrow

The main attraction at the marsh has been a family of Common Gallinules. They’re fascinating, chicken-like, aquatic birds that like the dense cattail marsh and weedy pond habitats for feeding, nesting and raising their chicks. I prefer the Old World name, Moorhen, which was discontinued in the U.S. in 2011 in favor of Gallinule.

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Common Gallinule, adult

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Common Gallinules, adult and chicks (grooming)

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Gallinule family retreating into the cattail marsh after feeding in open water.

Dressed in brilliant spring breeding colors, the male Wood Duck is one of the most popular subjects for photography and art in the world. In summer however, it looks much like the female Wood Duck, adorned in what is called “eclipse” plumage.

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Wood Duck, male, eclipse plumage

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

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In the Heat of the Day!?

The summer season and waves of brightly colored wildflowers that arrive with it can be a seemingly endless array of sights, sounds and ecological interactions. There’s usually something in the mix to baffle, entertain and satisfy any nature enthusiast, regardless of their specialty. A simple, short walk through an open natural area (meadows, fallow fields, waste places) in the middle of a hot, steamy day can prove to be quite rewarding!

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St. Johnswort

My gallery is a sample of images captured in the month of July. Let’s take a hike!

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

At Water’s Edge: White-tailed Deer

A small stream that flows through nearby village and college properties is one of my favorite haunts. The site is accessible by trail and, though just a few acres in size, is ecologically rich.

I often look for herons, both the Green and Great Blue, when walking the floodplain nature trail. However, as is the case with many of my camera-toting excursions, it’s the unplanned surprises that become the signature events of the trip. In this instance, the surprise encounters involved White-tailed Deer.

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White-tailed Deer in July; yearling buck in velvet and adult doe

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White-tailed Deer in July; fawn, roughly 6 – 8 weeks old

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

At Water’s Edge: Great Blue Herons

Lately I’ve been visiting nearby wetlands in the morning, before chores (prior to getting serious about photography, I worked in the cool of the morning – much smarter, but also much less interesting!). I’ve had some good sightings which I must share via several posts.

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Bullfrog on lily pad

Yesterday was my third visit to a tiny pond bordered by a cattail marsh to observe and photograph a family of Moorhens. Sitting in muck at water’s edge, partially concealed by vegetation, I was immersed in the moment and unaware of what was going on beyond the viewfinder. At some point I lowered the camera to look around and discovered a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) perched atop a snag, 50 or 60 meters in front of me. I took some portrait shots (labeled bird #1), then captured a breath-taking sequence that I have presented in a gallery.

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Great Blue Heron, adult (bird #1)

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Great Blue Heron, adult (bird #1)

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Great Blue Heron, adult (bird #1)

While intensely focused on the perched heron, my viewfinder was suddenly and unexpectedly filled with a large bird with huge, dark wings. Because of my limited field of view, I had no idea what was happening as I pulled the trigger. The event was over in three seconds. Only when the mystery bird flew to a nearby perch did I realize that it too was a Great Blue Heron, an immature bird (bird #2).

The gallery shows the the arrival and departure of the immature heron, the response of the perched adult, and the immature bird pausing briefly on a nearby snag before leaving.

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Dragonflies and Damselflies

Dragonflies and damselflies, insect order Odonata, are a fascinating inhabitant of summer landscapes. Wetlands and surface waters are rich habitats where many species can be observed hunting, breeding and perching. The placid, weed-choked water of a canal or pond are examples of good habitat.

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Twelve-spotted Skimmer, perching

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Common Pondhawks mating (male is blue, female green). This unique position is called the “mating wheel”.

Many species also travel far from water to hunt meadows, trails and forest edges, providing ample opportunities for close encounters just about anywhere. I enjoy watching dragonflies hunt the corridor of my upland trail for mosquitoes and other small insects. Perpetual motion, they zip up and down the trail with blazing speed, unpredictably stopping on a dime to hover or change direction. At times they seem to be following me, picking off insects as I flush them, much like the swallows do when I’m mowing.

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Dragonfly on grass in an upland meadow

I never truly appreciated the unusual morphology and beauty of the Odonata until I started photographing them. Magnification is transformative, revealing an artsy mix of vivid colors, perching behaviors and distinct body parts. Most family and friends will take issue with this, politely suggesting that I stick to butterflies when photographing insects and related wildlife. If you share that view, you must admit that the names  – Ebony Jewelwing, Boreal Bluet, Powdered Dancer, Comet Darner, Dragonhunter, Pondhawk, Meadowhawk, etc. – are very cool!

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Halloween Pennant; typically perch at the top of a meadow plant, face into the wind, and maintain stability with wings arched and moving in different directions

Dragonflies and damselflies are, like butterflies and many other insects, a “canary in the cage” with respect to environmental health. In fact, they might be one of our best indicators because, in addition to diverse, open habitats for adults to forage, the aquatic larval stage is reliant on wetlands and surface waters. It is therefore critical that we appreciate them for their ecological role as well as their unusual behavior and appearance. I’m hoping that my images convey all of these attributes and leave a lasting impression (a good one of course!).

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

“Butterflies….the essence of cool in the insect world”

My title is from the opening line of an article in the Washington Post by Darryl Fears, published in the Syracuse Post Standard, a local newspaper, on 9July13. Fears connects the health of butterfly populations with that of the environmental with alarming statistics and quotes from experts around the country. Habitat loss, pesticides and other mortality factors are decimating butterfly populations. Nineteen species and subspecies are now listed as endangered or threatened in the U.S. alone; at least one species and two subspecies are presumed to be gone. I think that means forever.

I spend a lot of time observing and photographing butterflies and feel compelled to engage in this environmental wake-up call by blogging about my butterfly experiences in the Northeast, largely New York state. July is butterfly month. I’ve see six or eight species in as many days (a lot for this area), nectaring, perching, chasing and breeding in meadows and brush lots.

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Baltimore Checkerspot, perching on an unoccupied songbird nest box.

My first dedicated butterfly post features the Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton), one of the more abundant and accessible species in early July.

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Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars on Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), an alien wildflower

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Baltimore Checkerspot; emergence coincides with the bloom of Knapweed (Centaurea; the pinkish glow in the background)

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Baltimore Checkerspot

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A pair of Baltimore Checkerspots; they’ve just perched together following an aerial chase/courtship and are about to mate

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Baltimore Checkerspots, mating

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Turtlehead (Snapdragon family; Chelone glabra); wetland wildflower; preferred species for adult egg-laying and caterpillar feeding.

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Hummers, A Summer Favorite

My first real awareness of hummingbird behavior came decades ago, while exploring a small tract of abandoned farmland. A wet drainage in the middle of the property was populated with Jewelweed or Touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis), a succulent herbaceous plant with tubular orange flowers. It was in full bloom and I was able to observe, for the first time, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) feeding on nectar and perching in a natural setting. It was then that I also learned that they vocalize with a  high-pitched, twittering sound (probably made by males guarding the food source and chasing).

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Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird guarding a backyard feeder (1 of 2). The iridescent throat patch is not visible in poor light.

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The only hummingbird species that breeds in eastern North America, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are an extremely popular summer resident. Enthusiasts hang sugar-water feeders, generally clear containers with red, flower-like feeding stations, and plant tubular, red, orange or yellow flowers to attract hummers. These efforts are usually very successful and provide hours of delightful bird watching in the heat of summer. In some cases, as many as two or three dozen hummingbirds, adults and young of the year, will visit a feeder in mid to late summer and consume large quantities of artificial nectar.

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Female Ruby-throated Hummmingbird

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Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at a sugar-water feeder in late July or early August; mostly females and young of the year (1 of 2)

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I’ve presented some of my favorite hummingbird photos in a gallery. Most of these images are perching males that were either at rest (drying, preening, etc.), leaving their perch or aggressively guarding a sugar water feeder.

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.