While walking along a nature trail at an environmental education center, I discovered several tussock moth caterpillars. They were suspended above the trail tread on strands of silk, twisting, turning and drifting in the breeze.
Brightly colored critters appear to be easy pick’ins for predators, but have evolved unseen avoidance strategies to compensate for the absence of camouflage. This one, the Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar (Lophocampa caryae), is loaded for bear. The hairs have microscopic barbs, and the longer ones (hollow lashes) are connected to poison glands. The flesh is repugnant and toxic as well. Predators learn from experience and, seeing a juicy black and white caterpillar twisting helplessly in the breeze, turn tail and hunt elsewhere. The conspicuous coloration actually serves as a warning.
Bog wetlands are pleasing, open landscapes with a colorful carpet of low growing plant life. A saturated spongy layer of sphagnum moss sinks and gurgles underfoot, hinting at the possibility of open water beneath (and insuring that a photographer, like the sphagnum, will end up saturated and soggy). Viewing this unique ecosystem under magnification is transformative, revealing all sorts of fascinating and beautiful plants adapted to an acidic, nutrient-poor and perpetually wet site. The insectivorous species in particular – pitcher plants and sundews – illustrate amazing adaptations for extracting dietary supplements from their environment!
Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea); trap insects in their large hollow, water-filled leaves.
White Fringed Orchis (Habenaria blephariglottis; Orchid family)
Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia); entrap insects with sticky, dew-like droplets on glandular hairs
One thing usually leads to another, whether it be home repairs or nature photography. On a recent trip to the local farm stand a scene caught my eye: a field of ripening grain bordered by a freshly minted hops operation.
My best vantage point for the landscape photo happened to be at the edge of a commercial blueberry patch, now fallow with more weeds than blueberries in the rows. Milkweeds, fleabane and field thistles were everywhere, but the thistles had gone to seed and were the main attraction.
Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one interested in thistle seed heads. A flock of goldfinches was feeding up and down the rows – and I went along for the ride!
According to Watchable Wildlife, Inc., there are 60 million birders in the U.S. and “viewing” wildlife is a 50 billion-dollar industry. The commercial substitutes for thistle seed, sold for backyard tube feeders, are currently about two dollars a pound and a small part of this phenomenon. It’s refreshing to have the opportunity to observe birds behaving naturally, apart from the continuous offerings of steak and caviar in our backyards!
My first visit to the farm was fairly late in the day and it wasn’t long before fading light forced me to quit – but – not until I captured this late arrival to the weed patch! One thing leads to another.
Seasoned wet meadow habitats are usually a tangle of shrubs and herbaceous plants in a mosaic of thickets and openings. They’re transitional habitats, evolving from grassy, weedy meadows to woodlands. A dominant, overstory tree canopy is absent, although increasing numbers of young trees forecast a very different landscape in the decades to come. Wet meadows are places where one is likely to get wet or muddy feet, even when it hasn’t rained for awhile. They’re also places that support rich wetland communities of plant and animal life, all begging to be observed and photographed!
These images were all captured last week while exploring just a few acres of wet meadow habitats.
Baltimore Checkerspot on Birdsfoot Trefoil; the primary host plant for caterpillars is Turtlehead, a wetland wildflower
Virginia Ctenuchid moth on dogwood; Silky and Red-osier Dogwood are dominant shrubs in aging wet meadows and important wildlife habitat
The Browns or Satyrs are signature butterfly species in wetlands; adults feed at bird droppings and sap flows – not flowers
Twelve-spotted Skimmer, a common hunter in open habitats
Swamp Milkweed, a popular source of nectar in wetlands
Northern Pearly-eye, resting on a favorite tree in the transitional zone between wet meadow and forested swamp.
It’s common to hear the mews and endless melodies of a catbird at close range, but much more difficult to actually get a good look at one. The Gray Catbird (Dumetellacarolinensis) inhabits thickets of dense shrubs and small trees, where it feeds, nests and hops about in the shadows. My typical sighting is a “glimpse”, usually with the sun in my face!
Gray Catbird delivering an insect to its nestlings
In late June I noticed a pair of birds spending a lot of time in a small thicket, feeding on ripening fruit and insects.
Gray Catbird feeding on partially ripened Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) fruit in late June
I observed the thicket briefly for several mornings in early July and learned of a nest at about eye level in a dense, spiny barberry (Berberis vulgaris) shrub. A steady diet of bugs of all sizes and shapes was delivered by both parents throughout the day. Nearby, a Staghorn Sumac provided a temporary landing point before the birds sneaked into the thorny barberry to feed their young.
The catbirds also used the sumac as a perch for grooming and resting in the heat of the day.
Ebony Jewelwings (Calopteryx maculata) are constant companions along woodland trails near wetlands. They perch often on trail-side vegetation, sparkling in the sun like wetland jewels – blue or green, depending on the orientation of the sun.
Jewelwings are damselflies. They’re related to dragonflies (Odonates), but distinguished by upright rather than horizontal wing positions.
Dragonflies have much in common with birds, including flight, insect predation and sexual dimorphism. This post illustrates the latter. The male and female Blue Dasher dragonflies (Pachydiplax longipennis) are so different in their markings and coloration that they can easily be mistaken for separate species (I can’t go public with the number of times I’ve done that!).
I posted an image of the male yesterday and will include another, along with a female, to provide a striking example of sexual dimorphism.
My fascination with dragonflies began several years ago when I started investigating wetlands and open habitats with a camera. These insect predators are prominent in the summer landscape and tend to be visible – hunting, perching, breeding – on the hottest and most humid of days, when the usual bird and mammal subjects are lying low.