Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A Summer Trip to Utah and Central California

Since my last blog entry, I spent much of my time on a nice long vacation in Utah and Central California. My Mom, siblings, niece, nephews, and assorted great-nieces and great-nephews live in Utah, so I combined a family visit there with the chance to find and photograph western birds, dragonflies and butterflies that we do not see here in Virginia. So even though this blog is supposed to be about local wildlife and nature, I’m going to stretch that boundary and showcase some western species. The photos in this entry were all taken in Utah; next time I’ll post some from California.

I’ve forced myself to limit the number of photos I share here to fifteen. I saw so many new and beautiful things that it was hard to decide which ones to post, but hopefully you’ll enjoy the variety that I picked.

At the top of this post is a photo of a Black-necked Stilt with her chick. As you can see, Stilts have impossibly long legs, which helps them to wade through ponds and wetlands looking for food. The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge near Brigham City, UT is a prime breeding site for these birds, as well as for American Avocets, White-faced Ibis, and various other waterfowl and waders. I was raised in Brigham City, but during those years I had no interest whatsoever in the wildlife out at the Bird Refuge; I considered it a “boring” place (there are many of those when you’re a teenager). Now I could easily spend hours out there every day with camera in tow.

The road to the Bird Refuge is a good place to scan for raptors. In the summer you might see Red-tailed, Swainson’s and Ferruginous Hawks, as well as Golden Eagles and Northern Harriers. In the winter, Rough-legged Hawks can be fairly common, and Bald Eagles abound. Below is a gorgeous Swainson’s Hawk that I photographed on the way to the Refuge.

Western Kingbirds are also plentiful almost everywhere in Utah during the breeding season. Below is a photo of a young one that hatched earlier in the spring. Adult Kingbirds are feisty and aggressive little birds during the breeding season, and very territorial; they have been known to chase away small aircraft that fly over their nests!

I saw very few butterflies at the Refuge, and this might be because northern Utah is an agricultural area and they spray heavily for mosquitoes and other pests, which also kills beneficial insects. Butterflies are considered “collateral damage.” Dragonflies, on the other hand, were abundant at the Refuge, although I soon determined that there were only a handful of different species. That was okay with me, because the ones I identified were new to me! Here is a striking Blue-eyed Darner that I was fortunate to photograph while he hovered for a moment:

The most abundant dragonfly species was also one of the most beautiful, the Variegated Meadowhawk. The male is a vivid red color with a complex pattern, and the female is striking in her own right:

Male Variegated Meadowhawk

Female Variegated Meadowhawk

There were also good number of Eight-spotted Skimmers and Twelve-spotted Skimmers at nearly any pond in northern Utah:

Eight-spotted Skimmer

 Twelve-spotted Skimmer

Back at my Mom’s house in Brigham City, we watched the birds that came to her feeders, and we took a nice little walk along a creek in her neighborhood. One of the more spectacular birds at her feeder was the Lazuli Bunting, a close cousin of the Indigo Bunting that we see here in the East. At one time there were five males there in her little back yard:

The walk along the creek produced some good finds, including the beautiful male Band-winged Meadowhawk, below, and the one and only Two-tailed Swallowtail that I've ever seen. (The name describes it well; all of our other swallowtail species have one tail at the bottom of the hindwing; this species has two).

Band-winged Meadowhawk

Two-tailed Swallowtail

One of the highlights of my trip was a visit with a dear friend who lives in Salt Lake City; she’s one of those friends who you instantly connect with even after years apart, and it was wonderful to see her. Her in-laws have a cabin way up in the High Uintah Mountains east of Park City, and we spent a night and parts of two days there. As soon as we got out of the car at the cabin, we were surrounded by fluttery white and black winged critters that I later identified as “Police Car Moths,” a diurnal moth of mid-to-high elevations:

Both days we took a hike to a little waterfall about a mile from the cabin, and my friend was very patient while I tried to chase down anything that flew! Two of my favorite “finds” were the Four-spotted Skimmer (dragonfly), below, and the Mormon Fritillary. The Fritillaries flew all around us as we walked, but none would land, ever! I finally found one taking minerals at the edge of a pond and got my photo:

Four-spotted Skimmer

Mormon Fritillary

Here’s a photo of the view of the Uintahs and the mountain meadows as we walked along the trail to the waterfall. I do miss the mountains, and it felt so good to be there, taking in the view, listening to the mountain stream, and smelling the clean, cool air:

The people in the cabin next to ours had hung hummingbird feeders, and they were busy! They graciously let me sit on their back deck with my camera and photograph the Broad-tailed and Rufous Hummingbirds that visited the feeders. Most were females or juveniles, but I was able to get photos of adult males of each species, showing off their beautiful gorgets:

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

Rufous Hummingbird

Okay, sorry, that was 17 photos. I can't help myself; there were so many beautiful things to see, and I've just shared a very small portion of them with you here. If you're interested in seeing more, you can check my photostream on Flickr (www.flickr.com/birdingva) If you take these kinds of photos and share the same interests that I do, please make me a "contact" if you have a Flickr account. Better yet, come to the quarterly "Nature Photo Night at the Library" event that I facilitate at the Chesapeake Central Library (298 Cedar Rd.) Our next photo-sharing night is on Monday, October 21 starting at 6:00 p.m. Call me at 757-410-7147 if you would like more details -- ask for Karen. 

Next time, we go to California! Here's a peek:

Friday, July 11, 2014

Virginia Purple Gallinule, Anhingas and Dragonflies

We’re approaching “High Summer” here in Virginia, which means that most of the songbirds are quieter (so as not to bring attention to themselves and their nests, plus they've already won over their mates and don't have to impress them anymore!) and they’re hard to see, tucked away in the thick summertime foliage. Butterflies are usually quite evident by now, but I’ve noticed a serious lack of numbers in most species, maybe because of last winter’s harshness; I hope to see a reversal of this trend soon.

But you never know what oddball, unexpected things might stir things up. We birders live for surprises, birds that have wandered far from their normal ranges and are not supposed to be here in Virginia. We got a doozy in late May and June, a Purple Gallinule that found its way to a little park in Waynesboro (photos above and below).  Purple Gallinules are expected in southern Florida, and frequently wander north, but not usually as far as Virginia.

Gallinules are related to American Coots, which do occur here regularly. While Coots sport plain black plumage, Purple Gallinules are spectacularly colored with iridescent hues of purple and blue, which contrast beautifully with their bright red bills and their bright yellow legs and enormous feet. I think this is one of our most gorgeous birds, and I did make the drive to Waynesboro to see and photograph this bird, my first in Virginia.

The Anhinga is another species that is uncommon in Virginia, although not nearly as uncommon as the Purple Gallinule. The Anhinga population increases dramatically as one heads south, with southern Florida being their stronghold in the U.S. Three of them, an adult male, an immature male, and a female, are currently nesting at a little pond off Blackwater Road in Chesapeake. The birds are quite far away from any access points, so the photos I took when I went there are heavily cropped and of poor quality, but I’m sharing one here to show you what an Anhinga looks like:

Most of the rest of my adventures in photography this month have been with dragonflies. Once you start really looking at dragonflies and learning to identify them, you can't help but be impressed by the number of different species there are are how different they are from one another. Currently my favorite place to go to find difference species is Harrison Lakes National Fish Hatchery near Hopewell, and Railroad Ditch in the Great Dismal Swamp. Here is a sampling of what I saw at those places in June:

This damselfly and the one below are Jewelwings in the "Broad-winged" family of damselflies. They are similar in that they both have striking, iridescent green bodies, but if you look again, you'll see that the male Sparkling Jewelwing (above) shows black only at the tip of its wings, while the male Ebony Jewelwing (below) has all-dark wings. There are other differences between them, but the amount of black in the wings is a good place to start the ID process.

The two damselflies below are in the "Spreadwing" family, with obvious differences from the Broad-winged damselflies above. As the name suggests, "Spreadwing" damselflies hold their wings out to the side when perched, while most other damselflies hold them closed together over their bodies. The first photo is of a "Swamp Spreadwing;" the second is a "Southern Spreadwing."

The bright red Dragonfly below is one of our most striking, and fortunately for us it is also very common. This is a male Calico Pennant; the female has the same markings but she is yellow.

This pair of Green Darners is in the process of "ovipositing" eggs in the water. The male (right) has mated with the female, and continues his clasp on her to ensure that she lays his eggs and does not mate with another male. You can see the female's abdomen curved down into the water, where she is depositing her eggs.

I think the female Banded Pennant, below, is one of our prettiest dragonflies. I like the way her bright red eyes contrast with the yellow markings on her body.

If you look closely at the female Blue Dasher in the next photo, you will see dozens (hundreds?) of eggs under her abdomen and thorax. She is ready to oviposit.

I'll end here with a little diversity; I do keep my eyes open for critters other than birds and dragonflies!

Eastern-eyed Click Beetle. The black "eyes" that are so prominent are not actually eyes; they are pigment, a defense mechanism to make the beetle look scary. It works! The beetle is actually quite harmless.

Northern Watersnake

See you next time!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

More Spring Birding in Hampton Roads

Spring bird migration in Virginia is now over, so it’s likely that any birds you see for the next couple of months are breeding birds that will be here all summer. Right now is the best time to go out and look for these birds; the weather is still cooler on most days, insects are not as numerous or voracious as they will be soon, and many birds are still singing to attract mates or claim breeding territories, making them easier to find.  Additionally, most birds are still in fresh breeding plumage and are at their most stunning; as the summer wears on their feathers will wear down and their colors become duller.

I went on two particularly productive birding field trips in the latter half of May, to Mackay Island N.W.R. near Knott’s Island, N.C., and to Paradise Creek Nature Park in Portsmouth. The photo at the top of this posting is of an adult male Common Yellowthroat I saw at Mackay Island. Yellowthroats are a type of warbler that is common in Virginia, and you will hear them at almost any wet or marshy area. They are usually hidden away in the reeds or grasses, but if you’re lucky one might pop out into the open to check you out.

Most of the habitat at Mackay Island is wetlands and freshwater marshes, which are actively managed for waterfowl, shorebirds, rails, and wading birds like herons, egrets, ibis and the like. Below are photos of some of these birds that I took when I went to Mackay on May 15:

This Glossy Ibis is coming in for a landing at the wetlands near the Visitors Center. 
The photo below is of the same bird, feeding.

Greater Yellowlegs

Little Blue Heron

Mackay also has fields and eastern pine hardwoods forests, which attract songbirds like Orchard Orioles, Great-crested Flycatchers, Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, Summer Tanagers and many other species. Below is my photo of one of the common summer residents, the magnificent Eastern Kingbird:

The visitor center at Mackay has wetlands and ponds that attract several species of swallows including Purple Martins and Tree Swallows (below). It’s hard to tell whether these swallows are fighting or flirting:

Paradise Creek Nature Park in Portsmouth is a very new park that provides a sliver of good bird habitat in the middle of an older suburban neighborhood and an industrial area near the Jordan Bridge. A sliver is enough, though, to attract some beautiful birds. Here are some that I saw there last Saturday:

The Blue Grosbeak is a common summer resident in Virginia. It likes open, weedy fields. 

This is the same species as the bird pictured at the top of this posting, a Common Yellowthroat. This first-spring male is not yet in its full adult plumage.

One of everyone's favorite birds is the stunning Indigo Bunting

As bird activity starts to wane after spring migration, insect activity increases. I realize that more people are interested in birds and bird photos than they are in dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies, but I get very excited about finding and photographing them. Many of my field trips for the next few months will be centered on finding dragonflies and damselflies in particular. My next blog post will go into some detail about some of our local species, but in the meantime, let me give you a taste of the diversity in the patterns and colors of some of our damselflies; they are truly one of the jewels of the insect world!

Immature female Citrine Forktail 

Southern Spreadwing

 Male Blue-tipped Dancer. The female, below, looks nothing like the male.

Two pair of Orange Bluets in tandem. The male clasps onto the back of the female's head prior to mating.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Some Spring Birding in Hampton Roads

Springtime is a very active time of year for birds and bird watchers. Most of the winter birds and waterfowl have left Hampton Roads to head north to their breeding grounds, but there are new arrivals every day of birds that spent their winter south of us and are returning north to their breeding grounds. Some stay in Virginia to breed, like the industrious little Barn Swallow, above, that is collecting mud and sticks for its nest, and some species are just passing through our area as they continue to their breeding grounds further north of us. For bird watchers, every day is an adventure, and no two days are the same. Here are some of the bird photos I’ve taken this April and so far in May.

A few Great Egrets (photo above) do winter here in Hampton Roads, but in early spring they are supplemented by more birds that have arrived from the south. Great Egrets are communal breeders, and gather in “rookeries” where they nest literally side by side. It surprises some people to learn that they do nest in trees and not on the ground. They are very loyal to their historic rookeries and return to them year after year.

There is a small rookery in a neighborhood on Indian River Road, and despite “people noise” and heavy traffic, a few egrets cling to the few trees that remain from their larger, historic rookery and they continue to breed there. Neighbors have cut down most of the trees because they don’t like the noise and the mess that the egrets make.

But if you get to the rookery early in the morning, ignore the cars and the McDonalds restaurant close by and just watch the egrets, it’s a beautiful experience. They are in their full breeding finery with long, elegant plumes that they show to their best effect as they try to attract mates. Their lores (the area in front of the eye) turn a beautiful shade of green during this time, which only lasts for a few weeks. Above and below are a few photos of some of these spectacular birds. Special thanks to Nancy Neal for alerting me to the location of this rookery.

Yellow-crowned Night-Herons return to Hampton Roads in late March and early April, and are on their nests by mid-April. Below is a photo of one on its nest, high in a tree near The Hague in Norfolk. I worried for this bird; the winds were so strong, the tree was blowing crazily from side to side, and the nest these birds build look so poorly constructed. But I guess they know what they’re doing; the nest remained intact. The Hague is a good place to find Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. At lower tides, you can see them on the stone wall down at the water for food, and at very low tides, they will hunt on the mudflats for crabs.

I went to Fort Monroe in Hampton with a friend on April 26 to see what birds were there. Surprisingly, one of the first birds we saw in the marina was a late Horned Grebe in full breeding plumage! Most of the wintering grebes have already flown north out of Hampton Roads by late April, but this one was hanging on for a few more days:

A few Brown Pelicans spend the winter in Hampton Roads, but far more join them here in the spring and breed on the islands nearby. Brown pelicans are large and impressive, especially in flight, but their plain brown colors are really rather drab – that is, until it’s breeding season! Look at all the beautiful and subtle colors that this pelican, perched on the pilings at Fort Monroe, has acquired in order to attract a mate!

It was a wet spring, and the flooded grassy fields at Fort Monroe hosted a variety of shorebirds that are usually seen along the mudflats at ponds and wetlands. It was a good opportunity to see various sandpipers, both Yellowlegs, and the spectacular American Oystercatcher, below.

Ospreys, also known as “Fish Hawks,”  are abundant at this time of year, and there were several active nests at Fort Monroe at relatively close range. Here are a couple of photographs I was able to take of these beautiful birds.

One of my favorite places to bird in the spring is the Great Dismal Swamp.  During spring migration, there is no other place I know of that has the amount and variety of bird song that I hear there in the early morning (7-8:00); it’s a veritable symphony! You will not see most of the birds because of the dense woods and foliage along the dike trails, so you must learn to “bird by ear” if you want to identify the species that are singing. I actually find this very rewarding, even though it means not getting many bird photos! I did manage to photograph a pair of Summer Tanagers (below) when I was there earlier this week; the first is an “Orange” female, and the second is a 1st spring male that is molting into his all-red adult plumage.

I tried to go to Mackay Island N.W.R. last weekend, but the refuge was completely closed to traffic due to high water. So I drove around the nearby fields and residential lawns along Muddy Creek Road in Virginia Beach. They were also flooded, which attracted large numbers of Snowy Egrets, Glossy Ibis, and Cattle Egrets, which were nice to see because they have become more scarce in Virginia in recent years. Here’s a photo of one of the strutting, breeding-plumaged Cattle Egrets:

 This is just a taste of the bird activity that is going on around us right now. If you go to any park, pond or woods in the next couple of weeks and just keep your eyes and ears open, I guarantee that you will find something fabulous!