Daytime Moths

This has not been a good year for butterfly sightings in central New York. So, rather than dig into my archives for old butterfly photos, I’ll feature one of the few members of the butterfly and moth group (Order Lepidoptera) that I’m seeing daily, in the field as well as around the house: a moth that refuses to act like a moth!

The species is the Hummingbird Moth (Hemaris thysbe), also called Common Clearwing or Hummingbird Clearwing. These moths are very “unmoth-like” in two ways: they’re active during the daytime and, as their name implies, they look and act like tiny hummingbirds. In flight, the mostly transparent wings move so fast they’re barely visible. When nectaring, they hover, just like a hummingbird.

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Hummingbird Moth nectaring on garden Phlox, 1 of 5

Hummingbird moths have a long, tongue-like feeding tube (proboscis), an adaptation for nectaring on tubular flowers. The proboscis is coiled in flight, then extended for feeding.

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The adults are active throughout the summer and are most often seen in landscape gardens when Bee Balm (Monarda), Phlox and other tubular flowers are blooming. Earlier today I watched one nectaring on Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium), a wildflower approaching full bloom in damp meadow habitats

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Hummingbird Moth nectaring on Bee Balm

The larvae feed on a variety of woody plants, especially those in the honeysuckle and rose families (honeysuckles, Viburnums, hawthorns, cherries, etc.). They weave a cocoon on the ground, in leaf litter, where they overwinter (to encourage these plump little pollinators, a little benign neglect in the form of leaf litter around the edge of the yard could be helpful!).

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

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Stalking the Mudflats and Shallows – Part 2

Large wading birds have broad appeal and a huge following. They have it all – visibility, beauty of form and color, wings spanning several feet in flight, etc. A sighting is an event, even more so when the species in question is uncommon to the area.

Such is the case with the Great Egret (Ardea alba) in Central New York. Its summer range is extensive, including the Mississippi River drainage and the east coast of the U.S., but typically does not include inland regions like ours. We’re not far from several large wetland and lake ecosystems, including Lake Ontario, so are more likely than most to see one of these lovely birds drifting through. 

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I had the good fortune to observe and photograph a lone Great Egret from a ground blind at a reasonable distance, on the same morning that I captured the Great Blue Herons that were featured in the previous post. These two posts represent one of my most rewarding – and challenging – photographic adventures to date. Needless to say, my head was, at times, spinning, as were my camera dials!

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The large size (about 3 feet tall), yellow beak and black legs are diagnostic.

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The feeding behavior of Great Egrets is much like that of Great Blue Herons. They stalk and spear a variety of food items, including small fish, frogs and aquatic invertebrates. The fully extended body that precedes a lunge is a beautiful sight and seems, like the routines of Olympic gymnasts, physically impossible!

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In addition to the Great Egret, there were three Great Blue Herons, a dozen or so Canada Geese on this site in close proximity to one another. I saw some antagonism between the egret and herons initially but, for the most part, they seemed tolerant of one another.

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Great Egrets were nearly exterminated in the late 19th century due to market hunting for their breeding plumage. Fortunately, they’re adaptable to a variety or wetland habitats, both saltwater and freshwater, and responded well to protection and conservation practices. That said, any species that relies on wetland habitats and some degree of seclusion from people and predators should be on our watch list. I for one have had my eyes opened in terms of the importance of a relatively small wetland site with a few pools and open mudflats. 20 or 30 wetland birds, perhaps a dozen species in all, frequent it daily at this time of year.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Stalking the Mudflats and Shallows – Part 1

Earlier in the week I spotted a Great Egret feeding in the shallow water of a partially drained pond. This was my first sighting in years so I stopped and set up as best I could without pushing it off the water…beyond the effective range of my camera.  I got some mediocre “insurance” shots but had more fun watching shorebirds probing the mudflats in front of me and, across the pond, a Kingfisher diving for small fish in the shallow water.

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I didn’t expect to see the Egret again so returned the following morning and set up to try my luck with a diving Kingfisher. This post is the first of two that summarize that adventure.

Soon after I positioned myself in a ground blind near water’s edge, the Great Egret flew in and landed on a log perch in the middle of a pool of shallow water. I was so intent on capturing the moment that I failed to see a family of three Great Blue Herons glide in until they were on top of me.

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After things settled down, the Herons, like the Egret, started feeding in the shallow water. This was the first time I’ve seen what happens when Herons wade in deep, soft mud – it’s a show that has to be shared!

When they got stuck in the muddy bottom, which was often, they simply flapped their wings to pull themselves up and free, then resumed feeding in their classic stalking manner.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Perpetual Motion – the Giant Swallowtail!

Twice in the last three years something exotic has unexpectedly fluttered into my life, teased me for a minute or two, and then floated up and away over the tree tops. In each case I was relaxing in a lawn chair on a warm August afternoon, and in both instances I bolted into the house to get my camera and prepare for the digital capture of a subject that was moving constantly and erratically, wings blurred by rapid, perpetual motion.

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If you live in the Deep South you will probably get a good laugh from this post, or quickly leave to search for something more interesting. The visitor was a Giant Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio cresphontes), a species that is quite common in the South but unfamiliar to most northerners.  I’ve been chasing butterflies since old enough to walk but had never seen, or heard of, this species until 2011. Soon after that initial encounter, it was featured in the August, 2011 issue of the New York State Conservationist magazine in an article by Terry Mosher : “Swallowtail Surprise”. An older field guide to eastern butterflies lists my location in central New York as the extreme northern fringe of the range of this butterfly but sightings have increased throughout the Northeast in recent years. Climate change is no doubt an influencing factor in this trend. I’m also suspicious that “snow birds” – the millions of humans that migrate North to South in the winter – might have something to do with the distribution of the species.

Surprisingly, the Giant Swallowtail ranges far beyond the flower gardens, pine flats and Citrus groves of the South, occurring from southeastern Canada to South America. Adults nectar on many flowering plants, including Goldenrod and Phlox in the Northeast. The caterpillars (called “orangedogs” in the South) love plants in the Citrus family (in some cases to the point of being a pest), but also feed on a thicket-forming shrub found in this region: Northern Prickly-ash.

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The nectaring flight pattern of a Giant Swallowtail is mesmerizing: flight movement is slow, but the wings, particularly the forewings, flutter constantly and rapidly as it bounces, hops and darts from flower to flower. The only pauses in rapid wing motion – mere fractions of a second – occur first when the butterfly is nectaring and again between flower visits.

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Appropriately named, the Giant Swallowtail is among the largest butterflies in North America (some claim it’s the largest), with a wing span of about 6 inches (noticeably larger than the familiar Tiger Swallowtail).

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“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”          –  John Muir

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

 

Eastern Elk Country

The springboard for my career was graduate studies of elk and other herbivores in the heart of a region that is now marketed as the “Pennsylvania Wilds”. The experience also spawned a 40-year friendship with my field research mentor, a retired forester and author of works on forest history and elk. Return trips to visit, hike, fish and photograph are always mutually rewarding and memorable. It is this connection that brings to mind a quote of Aldo Leopold: “There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.”

Covering a dozen counties and roughly 2-million acres in the northcentral portion of the state, the PA Wilds region is largely forested and under State or Federal ownership. Outdoor recreation and tourism are the backbone of local economies. Historically, deer hunting was the main draw to the area, and may still be, but new outdoor recreation activities with growing participation rates are rapidly altering the landscape, and the experience.

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Appalachian Mountains/Allegheny Plateau in northcentral PA

When visiting, I stay in my friends log cabin and seamlessly slip into a refreshingly different world of backcountry wildlife, mountains, tumbling brooks, endless forested landscapes and rich land use history. On a cloudy night the experience is enhanced by environmental qualities that are nearly extinct in the civilized world: the virtual absence of human noise and the disorienting, but enlightening, experience of total darkness.

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Beaver, feeding on the bark of a twig (probably willow).

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the region was a bustling network of logging camps, sawmills, tanneries and related industries. Extensive stands of virgin White Pine, valued for lumber and ship masts, helped one local city lay claim to being the “lumber capital of the world” in the late 1800’s. A pine log destined to be used as a ship mast had to be straight and at least 90 feet long and 18 inches across – at the small end! Using only horses, oxen, hand tools, the power of water (and later, railroads), loggers harvested and transported these massive timbers with incredible ingenuity. One example was the use of a series of “splash dams” to move large logs down small streams. Gated dams were constructed from nearby timber and rocky substrate to created a reservoir that was filled with logs hauled off the mountain. When the gate was opened, the logs shot downstream, buoyed and propelled by the artificial flood water. 

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Remains of a 140-year-old splash dam on a small mountain creek; the foundation of Hemlock logs is waterlogged and remarkably well preserved.

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Old, historic railroad bridge in the heart of the PA Wilds region

The last native PA elk was killed in the latter part of the 19th century. However, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the reintroduction of elk and a wild, free-ranging herd of several hundred animals has become the center piece of the PA Wild program.

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Wild Pennsylvania elk: an immature bull in velvet; photo 1 of 3

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Elk, deer, bear and turkeys are the main attractions for tourists and hunters alike, but the detailed landscapes of forest openings, beaver meadows, and the edges of sparsely traveled trails and roads are often rich in plant and animal life.

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Porcupine; strolling along the edge of a beaver meadow and grazing on succulent, herbaceous vegetation

Three plants, or plant groups, that are spectacular in mid-summer are the daisies and daisy-like flowers, Bee Balm and Cardinal Flower. All of these photos are wild plants, growing naturally in the area being featured.

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Crescent butterfly on Coneflower

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Bee Balm (Oswego Tea); past peak bloom

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Spicebush Swallowtail on Cardinal Flower; flood plain of a mountain stream

When available, both Bee Balm and Cardinal Flower are favored, natural food sources for hummingbirds.

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Ruby-throated Hummingbird, preening

I stopped near the eastern border of the PA Wilds on my way home to break up the trip and photograph a mountain stream. This was my final capture of the trip.

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Red-spotted Purple; gravel bar on the flood plain of a mountain stream.

Photos by NB Hunter. ©  All Rights Reserved.