A Closer Look at Late Summer

Sometimes I need to saunter, camera in tow, with no particular destination or photographic agenda. My only serious goal is surviving attacks from biting insects, mosquitoes and deer flies in particular. The slow pace shifts my gaze from distant subjects to the detail landscapes in front of my nose.

I’ve been fascinated by Jewelweed or Touch-me-not forever. Morning dew on Jewelweed blossoms is a late summer event in macro world. A friend calls the plants “poppers” because, like many of us, she remembers squeezing and exploding the mature seed pods as a child. Eventually, I came to fully appreciate the late summer Jewelweed bloom when I watched hummingbirds feeding on the tubular flowers….fueling up just weeks before their lengthy migration.

Knapweed is in full bloom now, preceding the goldenrods and asters by several weeks. It’s a magnet for nectaring insects and adds a little spice to the monochromatic greens of a summer meadow.

Monarchs have been few and far between this summer (?), so I was thrilled to have this specimen pause long enough for a portrait!

A meadow hawk dragonfly at rest on an unopened knapweed flower bud, with knapweed blossoms as a backdrop.

Our common White Admiral, at rest on a spruce branch in morning sun after a crazy,  erratic flight around the yard.

Wild thistles deviate from the norm, flowering and fruiting simultaneously on the same plant. Goldfinch food!

Tiny frogs and toads are now exploring new territory, eating and trying to avoid being eaten. This little Wood Frog could rest comfortably on the end of your thumb.

Cottontails are everywhere this year. These daytime foragers are often seen together and lead me to think they are survivors from a litter that I started photographing in May. Scenes like this one, on my weedy sidewalk, are the main reason I stopped using commercial weed killer a long time ago.

Photos by NB Hunter (August, 2019). © All rights reserved.

The Amazing Wood Frog

In early April the skim of ice on a shallow, ephemeral pool finally melted. The next day, an inviting afternoon sun led me back to the pool, camera in hand. This is a ritual of Spring that’s been repeated since I created the micro-habitat in a wetland 30 years ago. Less than 15 feet across and about a foot deep, the “pothole” is a breeding habitat for dozens of wood frogs. A subsurface layer of clay retains water in Spring and early Summer – in most years, sufficient time for the metamorphosis of tadpoles to frogs.

Built for the cold, the Wood Frog (Lithobates (Rana) sylvatica) ranges far north into Canada and Alaska – farther north than any other reptile or amphibian. Their adaptation to the severe cold and erratic Spring weather of northern climes is unique. They’re freeze tolerant and breed explosively in a narrow window of opportunity. This story – starting with the appearance of more than 30 active frogs and ending with masses of eggs (and no frogs) – occurred in about three days.

The majority of the frogs were males, distinguished by their dark, mottled brown coloration and size (smaller than females; about two inches long).

The small size of the vernal pool and a predominantly male population led to frenzied chasing and breeding activity. At times, the water boiled with chaotic activity as a large number of males chased and converged on a female.

Occasionally, the female, larger and more colorful than the males, could be seen at the center of the fray.

A breeding male grabs the female, hooks his thumbs around her (amplexus) and holds on until eggs are deposited.

Soon, surprisingly large masses of eggs appear. Mission accomplished!

Most offspring that survive a year – relatively few – will return to this natal pool to breed. I’ll be ready, with a slightly larger and enhanced wetland stage for their performance.

Wood frogs are fairly common in forested wetland habitats, but we must be mindful of their complex habitat needs and practice wetland conservation on a broad, landscape level. The conservation of small, temporary wetlands and vernal pools is critical. They aren’t protected and often fall victim to leveling and grading, heavy equipment operation, development and other destructive practices. Additionally, wood frogs are woodland creatures that rely on a variety of habitats (more so than most frogs). They wander far and wide in moist woodland habitats adjacent to their natal pools and also hibernate on land – under leaf litter, rotting logs, rocks, etc. Forest management practices should take this into account.

Photos by NB Hunter (April, 2019). © All rights reserved.

 

 

Happy Earth Day

Celebrating Earth Day with images from April, 2018.

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Starlings searching for spilled grain on an active farm

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Mallard at rest on a wintry spring day

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Ring-billed Gull foraging in a flooded field

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Mature whitetail after a long, cold rain

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Turkey Vulture cleaning up a road-kill

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White-throated Sparrow with a kernel of corn

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Breeding Wood Frog in a vernal pool – today – a month behind schedule

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Wild turkey (a young gobbler or “jake”)

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

August Colors and Details

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Sub-adult Wood Frog out and about on a rainy day

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White-tail fawn foraging in cultivated fields

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Bumblebee feasting on Touch-me-not (Jewelweed)

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Teasel at ground level, the 6-foot stalk flattened by flood waters 

 

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Clearwing Hummingbird Moth on Phlox (1 of 2)

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Small pool of spring water that has quenched the thirst of 3 dogs during 30 years of trail walking

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White Admiral, wings upright and showing its true colors

Photos by NB Hunter (August, 2017). © All Rights Reserved.

Amphibians and Frozen Wetlands

Hunkering down on successive mornings of 9 and 14 degrees F, I can’t help but wonder about the impact of a deep freeze on the reproductive cycle of amphibians in shallow water, wood frogs in particular.

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A Central New York wetland; April 5, 2016

I monitor a small vernal pool every year as the warm March sun melts winter ice and wood frogs begin their explosive breeding cycle.

I last checked the pool on April 2, just before the arctic blast and snowstorm arrived. It was a chilly, 45 degree day and the pool was clear of ice. Judging by the presence of several large egg masses, the wood frogs had successfully completed their reproductive cycle.

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Wood Frog egg mass in a vernal pool; April 2, 2016

One frog, lethargic in the cold water, allowed me to experiment with light reflections and shooting angles.

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When spring returns, and the little vernal pool comes back to life, I plan to examine the egg masses to see what, if any, impact the freezing temperatures had on egg survival.

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

 

Discovery Walks

One of my favorite things to do in spring is to grab some field gear and walk, slowly and without purpose. It’s exhilarating, the vivid colors, species richness and animal activities teasing all of the senses. A purpose may materialize around the next bend in the trail, or not. The anticipation alone is a recreational high. And the rewards invariably appear.

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Great Crested Flycatcher, nest-building

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Midland Painted Turtle; searching for a wetland habitat

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Blue-winged Warbler, foraging for insects in a wild apple tree

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Wood Frog in a moist, poorly drained woodland habitat

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Raven

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Flowers and developing leaves of a mature Red Oak tree

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Baltimore Oriole, male, foraging on insects (possibly nectar too) on a wild apple tree in full bloom

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11-month-old white-tailed deer, buck, browsing on the new foliage of woody plants

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The mother of the young buck, feeding on the new leaves of Sugar Maple

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Wood Frogs

Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica) are notorious for their opportunistic breeding behavior. They quickly congregate, mate and lay eggs during the first warm spell following ice melt in March or April. Low, repetitive, quacking sounds in vernal pools and wetlands announce this ephemeral breeding frenzy, but constant vigilance is still critical – if you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss all of the action!

I saw a few frogs in a vernal pool briefly, four days ago. It was 18 degrees (F) and snowing this morning when I visited the same pool. It was much too cold for an amphibian –  but there were eggs in the pool! Done!!!

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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.