Summer Thrills and Musings

In the midst of an oppressive heat wave with high humidity, even a trip to the extensive, unbroken forests of the Allegheny Mountains offered little reprieve. Cold, freestone streams remained cold, but the waters were low and the trout sluggish. A good rain would bring them out from their hiding places but it wasn’t to be!

Sunrise over the forested ridges and fog-laden valleys of the Allegheny Mountains

A freestone trout stream, protected from the summer heat by the canopy of a forested watershed

My attention quickly shifted to a world where heat and humidity were a blessing: wild flowers and butterflies. The trees and shrubs of deciduous forests provide a smorgasbord of host plants for the caterpillars of many butterfly species and the adults are apt to swarm floral blooms for nectar. Swallowtails are the main attraction.

Tiger Swallowtails on milkweed

Bee Balm (Oswego Tea; Monarda), escaped into wild places from cultivation and a favorite food source of butterflies and hummingbirds.

Spicebush Swallowtail on Bee Balm

The white variety of native Rhododendron, in full bloom in early July on a moist, shaded site near a mountain stream.

The limiting weather and stream conditions in the mountains led me to break  camp early and return to the comforts of home and the rich, natural world that I know so well. Summer is a time when everyone seems to let their guard down as they go about the business of nurturing young and foraging on Nature’s bounty.

Red Fox pups frolicking in a hay field and playing keep-away with food (1 of 2 images).

The resident groundhog (woodchuck) foraging on dandelion leaves.

A “bachelor group” of whitetail bucks in velvet, heading for a field of corn.

July is our peak butterfly month and they have no interest in the “golden hour”. Mid day is their time to flutter. Depending on the species, the goal might be flower nectar, tree sap or minerals in a carcass or mud puddle!

Sulphur butterflies “puddling” in the mud on a nature trail.

Photos by NB Hunter (July, 2020). © All rights reserved.

Mid Summer Nectaring

Fritillaries on Milkweed

Fritillary on Milkweed

Fritillary on Monarda

Tiger Swallowtail on Day Lily

Tiger Swallowtail on Day Lily

Photos by NB Hunter 20July2015. All Rights Reserved.

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.

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.