Sunday, November 25, 2012

Lower Rio Grande Birding Festival 2012

My Mom and I returned last week from an amazing trip to the Lower Rio Grande Valley in extreme southern Texas. This all started when my furnace had to be replaced a year or two ago and my mother, bless her heart, loaned me some money to help out with that. I decided that it would be a lot more fun to pay her back with a birding trip instead of with a check, and she agreed, and thus our adventure was born...

Where to go? The 19th annual Lower Rio Grande Birding Festival was scheduled for the second week of November, and I looked into it. I've been to the Valley twice, but both trips were years ago. The Valley is one of the top three places ( if not the #1 place) to go in the U.S. to look for birds and butterflies, especially those that don't occur anywhere else in North America, and I wanted to go there again, badly. Plus, I wanted to show my Mom lots of birds and other things that she has never seen before. The Rio Grande Valley was perfect!

The Birding Festival offered various field trips geared to all levels of expertise in birding and butterflying. Mom and I spent some of our time on these field trips, learning where to go and what to look for from the fantastic, knowledgable leaders, and we spent the rest of the time out on our own. Between the two strategies, we saw almost everything we could possibly hope to see in a handful of days.

I took over 2000 photos, mostly of birds and butterflies, and have spent the last week discarding most of them, organizing them, researching and labeling them, and posting some to my page ( --  check them out if you like!) The only reason I could spend the week doing this is that I came home with bronchitis, presumably caught on the airplane, and I've been completely housebound. So, glad I had this project to keep me occupied!

It's really hard to whittle down the photos, but for this blog entry I will post my favorite ten bird photos from the trip; next time I'll post some of the beautiful butterflies. (Addendum: Okay, I posted 20 bird photos; it was impossible to cut them back any further. I could easily post another 20).

The most common hawk in the Valley is also, in my opinion, the most beautiful hawk in North America, the Harris's Hawk. Just look at its beautiful colors -- rich chocolate brown and deep chestnut, bright white under the tail and on its tip, and bright yellow on the legs and the base of the bill. These hawks like to stick together in family groups, so when you see one, you will usually see several nearby. The individual above was with a group of six hawks: here are four of them sitting on the same power line:

You will probably recognize this next bird: it is a member of the Quail family and does occur here in SE Virginia (although its numbers are markedly declining here). Even if you haven't seen one, you've probably heard their "Bob-White" call. This is a male Northern Bobwhite. As we were walking along the Rio Grande River, we flushed a covey of maybe two dozen birds; this one landed in a tree, and seemed to think he was invisible as long as he stayed put.

You might not be much impressed with this next photo, but I have to include it among my favorites because this was my target "life bird" of this trip, and she was so hard to find! As I said, I've been to the Rio Grande Valley twice before, and both times I tried to find this tiny little species with the big name, the White-collared Seedeater, with no luck. This is a Mexican species that just barely crosses the border into the U.S. in a very few places along the Rio Grande River where cane grows. Well, one of the field trips offered by the Birding Festival was specifically geared to finding this bird, so I signed up. We left Harlingen at 5:00 a.m. and traveled west into the dry Texas desert 3 hours by bus, until we arrived at a private ranch where these birds had recently been seen. To make a long story short, my group waited about three hours before this one little lone female Seedeater came to our patch of cane. She fed continuously, but she never did come out into the open. She remained under the heavy cover of the cane stalks, and was extremely difficult to see, much less photograph. So I hope you understand why I have to include this poor photo in my list of favorites!

This next bird is called a Great Kiskadee; it is the largest member of the Flycatcher family of birds in the U.S. This gorgeous, bright bird truly looks tropical, doesn't it? And it is as loud and raucous as it is colorful and showy. You will find groups of Kiskadees at almost any pond or body of water in the Rio Grande Valley, calling and chasing each other around.

Look closely at this next photo; you will find a master of camouflage in there. This is a Common Pauraque, one of the members of the "Nightjar" family of birds, related to our Whip-poor-will. These nocturnal birds feed actively during the night, and roost low to the ground during the day, where they blend in perfectly with the ground litter. This particular Pauraque, for reasons we can't comprehend, chose a spot about two feet off a well-used nature trail for its roost. Word spread among birders, and probably hundreds of people went to look at the bird every day -- but it never moved, and returned to exactly the same patch of earth every day. You just have to wonder what its little brain thought of all the fuss.

Here in Virginia, as in most of the U.S., we see one Kingfisher species, the Belted Kingfisher -- you know, that slaty blue kingfisher with the huge crest and the huge bill that hangs around ponds and lakes and dives for fish. In extreme southern Texas, there are three species of Kingfisher, and my Mom and I signed up for a pontoon boat cruise on the Rio Grande to look for these guys (as well as other birds, of course). The one below, a Green Kingfisher, is the smallest of the three. This one is a female; the male has a wide, beautiful, bright orange-chestnut colored band across its breast. But I was very happy to get a nice photo of the "plain" female. (My photos of the third species, the Ringed Kingfisher, are so bad I cannot possibly share them with anyone, ever).

When you think of a tropical bird, you think of outrageous, showy colors and plumage patterns. The Green Jay is probably the signature tropical bird of southern Texas; its appearance and bright colors are so unlikely and stunning that you can't quite believe what you're seeing. It might be the "most-wanted" bird by birders and naturalists who are going to southern Texas for the first time. This jay's demeanor is just like that of our Blue Jays -- noisy and raucous, and they usually travel in small groups.

Here's another of the Rio Grande Valley "specialties," the gorgeous Altamira Oriole. Its counterpart here in Virginia would be the Baltimore Oriole, which is much smaller. If you've seen a Baltimore Oriole's nest, you know it is a work of art; the female bird weaves it from grasses and other fibers, and it hangs like a pendulum  from a branch high up in a shade tree. The Altamira's hanging nest is sometimes twice the size of the Baltimore Oriole's, over two feet in length.

This plain, medium-sized bird looks just like a dusty Robin, doesn't it? Well, it is a separate, subtropical  species that used to be named the Clay-Colored Robin. Last year its name was officially changed (by the scientist-types who know about these things and have their reasons), to the Clay-Colored Thrush.
It's another bird that barely crosses the Mexican border into the U.S.

There are two species of "Whistling-Ducks" that occur in North America. These ducks have longer legs and necks than other ducks, and they will roost in trees -- and yes, their call has a "whistling" quality to it. They are not actually true ducks, but are taxonomically grouped as a subfamily of a subfamily of Geese! The Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, below, is the more common species in the Rio Grande Valley, but we also managed to see one Fulvous Whistling-Duck (second photo). Both are just beautiful.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Fulvous Whistling-Duck

Here's another Southern Texas specialty; it's a species that everyone wants to see, and everyone likes to say -- it is called a Chachalaca! These ground birds travel in groups, and usually stay well under thick cover, until it's time to visit local birdfeeders! Most of the parks in the Rio Grande Valley do maintain bird feeding stations, to attract birders as well as the birds. The folks there have come to realize that birders bring a lot of much-needed money into the Valley -- millions each year-- so they work hard to keep their parks attractive to the critters.

The parks also put out an abundance of hummingbird feeders, which attract not only migrant hummingbirds like Rufous and Black-chinned Hummingbirds, but the year-round resident Buff-bellied Hummingbird. This is another bird on everyone's "want" list because its U.S. range only extends into extreme southern Texas. This beautiful hummer is larger than the hummingbird we see here in Virginia, the Ruby-throated, and even though my photos are a bit blurry, you can see how colorful it is.

We saw only two woodpecker species during our trip, and neither of them occurs very far north of Texas. The Ladder-backed Woodpecker, below, sort of replaces our common Downy Woodpecker in southern Texas; it is similar in size and, superficially, appearance. As with all woodpeckers, the males have more red on the heads than the females; this one is a male.

The second woodpecker species is one of my favorites, the Golden-fronted Woodpecker. I tried real hard to get a photo that shows all three color patches on the male's head and nape, and finally got this one.

And last, the parrots! I did not realize it, but two species of parrots that reside in the Lower Rio Grande Valley have been accepted as "countable," wild birds by the American Birding Association, and are included on the official checklist of North American birds. In many cities including Miami and Los Angeles, there are many populations of "escapees," birds that have escaped captivity, and they do not count as wild North American birds. But in southern Texas, the Red-Crowned Parrot and the Green Parakeet have both established and sustained wild populations. We found out where the night roosts were for both species, and added two more unexpected birds to our life lists.

Red-crowned Parrot: Their night roost included maybe 200 birds and was so noisy! You could hear them several blocks away; it was an awesome sight!

Green Parakeets: This roost included only a dozen birds. Our directions to this roost was to go to the Golden Corral restaurant in Harlingen -- and that's where we found them!

I hope I didn't lose your interest somewhere along the way here in this lengthy posting. There was just so much to see in Texas, and it's hard to exclude anything. If you are at all interested in looking for new birds and butterflies, southern Texas is a place you absolutely must go to, and I'd be happy to talk with anyone who would like more information. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Rare Birds and Fall Migration on Virginia's Eastern Shore

Every autumn I make at least one day trip up to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge hoping to catch some of the fall bird migration (I would go every week if I could).  Longtime birders and naturalists bemoan that Chincoteague and Assoteague Islands are “nothing like they used to be in the good old days,” before people invaded the area, but even though this is unquestionably true, Chincoteague is still one of the best places on the Atlantic Coast to witness birds as they migrate along the coast, from their breeding territories in the north to their southern wintering grounds.  It also a “hotspot,” a place where rarities are almost always an annual occurrence. Rarities are birds that have taken a wrong turn somewhere along their normal migration route, and have found themselves in a place where they do not normally occur. Birders live for sitings of rare birds and will often drive hundreds of miles to chase a rare bird that has been reported.  Chincoteague is often their destination!
In October a report of a Black-tailed Godwit siting at Chincoteague spread like wildfire throughout the birding community, via birding listservs, blogs and other means that birders have set up to share  their findings with each other. This large shorebird species breeds in Iceland, Europe and Asia, and winters in the southern regions of those countries plus places like Africa, India, Indonesia and Australia. They very very rarely appear on the Aleutian Islands and the Atlantic Coast of North America.
Most of us birders keep lists of birds that we have seen in specific locations: life lists (birds seen anywhere in one's lifetime), North American lists, “state” lists, and even county and “yard” lists. A report of a bird that  you have never  seen before gets you crazy, especially if it is within driving distance, and unless you are in bed with pneumonia or working (sigh!),  you give chase! Like many other birders, I made the drive to Chincoteague on October 14, and added the Black-tailed Godwit to my life list - and to all my other lists, for that matter.

The Chincoteague Black-tailed Godwit, 10-14-12. Its breeding plumage in the spring is much brighter than what you see here; this bird is in its basic, duller winter plumage. Maybe not the sexiest-looking bird to some, but to all the birders who saw it, it was beyond beautiful!

It was easy to find the bird, because a few dozen birders were set up at the location where it had been seen the day before. I joined them, and in an hour or two, the bird finally appeared; it was just suddenly there, feeding in the shallow waters! It remained farther away from us than we would have liked, but it was close enough that we could view it and identify it. There was much celebrating, picture-taking, reveling and observation of the bird over several hours. It was also an opportunity to meet fellow birders whose names you recognize but you have never met. It is here that I met Lee Adams, a great friend of my library's director, Betsy Fowler. Betsy has told me on several occasions that I should contact and meet Lee since we have the same passion for birding and nature; now we have finally met, and I will always associate her with the Black-tailed Godwit!  
The Godwit was obviously the star of this year’s Eastern Shore fall migration, but I took photos of some other migrating birds as well:

By the second week of October, most of the Black Skimmers have already migrated out of Virginia, but a few still remain at Chincoteague. Skimmers are very strange birds, larger than the gulls and terns with which they associate, and with very striking black and white plumage. But the feature that really makes them stand out is that enormous bill, which is half red and half black. More striking still is the bill's structure: the lower mandible is much longer than the upper mandible! They feed by flying open-billed, low over the surface of the water, with the lower mandible actually in the water scooping up dinner! In the photo above you can see both the adult and juvenile birds (the juvenile plumage is a paler version of the adult's).

The Clapper Rail, above, is a bird of coastal saltmarshes, and lives under the thick cover of marsh grasses and reeds. It is heard far more oftern than it is seen, and it usually does not come out into the open unless it is a low tide and the mudflats are exposed. I intentionally planned to arrive at Chincoteague at low tide so I could try to photograph one of these rails out in the open -- and it worked. The only problem is that at low tide, the mud and the grasses are a murky, muddy, slimy gray, so that is what my mostly colorless picture looks like too!

Chincoteague is one of the best places to get a really good picture of an Osprey, also known colloquially as a "Fish Hawk." This is a raptor of coastal waters, lakes, and ponds; it is the hawk that you see hovering over the water, then plunging "feet first" into the water to catch fish with its powerful, huge talons. It is often confused with the Bald Eagle because of its size and the white on its head, but if you look at pictures of both species you will easily be able to see the differences between the two. Ospreys are common breeders in our area during the spring and summer, but most of them migrate south to warmer wintering grounds.

One of the most common shorebird species in our area is the Greater Yellowlegs. Yellowlegs are easily identifiable by their bright yellow legs (below) as well as other, more subtle, field marks. There is also a "Lesser Yellowlegs" species that migrates through Virginia, and it does take some practice to distinguish the two from each other. The Lesser Yellowlegs is smaller and daintier than the Greater, and its bill is smaller and more "needle-like."

Leaving the water and the marshes, there are also a lot of songbirds and migrants to be seen on the Eastern Shore in the autumn, on land and in the woods. They are much harder to photograph than the birds that are out in the open, because they're usually flitting in and out of heavy cover. Here are a few that I managed to capture:

I call this photo "Catbird Heaven" because Gray Catbirds eat berries and this one is just surrounded by them! You will see Catbirds in southeastern Virginia year round, but they are most numerous by far during fall migration.

This Eastern Phoebe, a member of the flycatcher family, is also a fall migrant through this region. Eastern Phoebes are quite plain in appearance, but are entertaining to watch as they are very active insect hunters. When perched, they pump their tails constantly. They are a bright-eyed, energetic, and fun bird to watch for a while!

This little guy is a hatch-year Magnolia Warbler. Like many warblers, Magnolias look much different in their fall and winter plumages than they do in the spring, usually a bit more plain. When birders talk about migration and "fallouts" of songbirds on the Eastern Shore, warblers are usually at the top of their "want list; they are colorful, active, and "cheerful," the jewels of the birding world. Birders will often describe a good day of birding by citing the number of warbler species that they saw, e.g. a "20-warbler" day.

This is another of the warbler species, a North Parula. This tiny species has a large breeding area, including southeastern Virginia, so when you see Parulas in the fall they include local populations and migrants too. They are one of the more common and widespread warblers, and most of the warblers I have seen this year in my suburban yard have been Parulas.

Most of the migrant songbirds have now passed through our area. They will be replaced soon by the species that winter here, including White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Kinglets, Brown Creepers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and seemingly thousands of Yellow-rumped Warblers; some of these winterers have already arrived at my feeders. One of the Baltimore Orioles that wintered in my yard last winter showed up yesterday, to my delight. Time to switch gears, fill the feeders more often, and enjoy the new guests!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

How to Grow a Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly!

It has been a full time job this summer, raising and releasing butterflies! Last summer the number of egg-laying adults and caterpillars was dismal, the lowest I’d seen in at least six or seven years. This was at least partially due to the severe weather we’d had the previous winter, which killed many overwintering eggs and caterpillars. This summer the butterflies are making up for that lost time, and breeding like their lives depend on it – which they actually do.

I’ve raised and/or released at least eighteen different butterfly or moth species from caterpillars that I've  found on the native plants in my yard this summer. Let me walk you through the process; I’ll use the gorgeous Zebra Swallowtail butterfly as my example.
Zebra Swallowtails lay their eggs on leaves of the Pawpaw tree, as the caterpillars eat only this food. So I planted Pawpaw in my yard to attract them. Along about mid-August, I saw a Zebra laying eggs on the leaves.

A week or so later I started finding the caterpillars, which had just hatched from the eggs. I started to collect them – and their leaves – and put them in screen cages for protection from birds, parasitic wasps and other predators. Here’s a photo of two 1 or 2-day-old caterpillars on their Pawpaw leaves; I placed a grain of rice on the leaf to give you a perspective on their size:

I replace the Pawpaw leaves in the cage at least once daily. Although I put the leaves in tubes of water to keep them fresh, they do dry out quickly, and the caterpillars need fresh leaves to survive and grow. Below is one of the caterpillars about 5 days after the first photo was taken, and again a few days after that. Caterpillars go through several molts before they morph into chrysalis, completely shedding their old skin to reveal the new one, and they can have very different appearances in their different stages:

When the caterpillar gets to be a couple of weeks old, give or take a few days, it starts to get restless and looks for a place to morph into its chrysalis stage. In my cages, it does this either on a dried leaf or on the side of the cage like this one:

This caterpillar is preparing to go into chrysalis; you can see the silk thread it has spun to attach itself securely to the cage. It has also "hunched" itself into a comma shape. When it is ready, it will actually shed its skin one more time, and reveal the chrysalis that has formed, below:

After another couple of weeks or so in chrysalis, the adult butterfly emerges. At first it is completely wet and looks more like a wasp than a butterfly. The butterfly below has been out of its chrysalis for ten or fifteen minutes:  

Over a period of several hours it unfolds, dries out, and pumps its wings to strengthen and prepare them for flight. 

Finally, the adult is ready to be released. Beautiful!

Last week my friends Sharon and Michael called about a caterpillar they had just found in their yard, and they emailed me a photo taken with their cell phone:

I knew this was some kind of moth larva. I called and asked them how big it was, and the answer was that it was bigger than Michael's index finger! After a little investigating I determined that it was an Imperial Moth caterpillar, one of the family of impressive giant silk moths that occurs here. I told my friends that I definitely wanted to raise and release this guy, so they delivered it to me the next day. Here it is, with a mug only a mother could love:
I read that this caterpillar species does not form a cocoon above ground as many moths do; instead it burrows into the ground and morphs into a pupae for the winter, encasing itself in a hard, waxy shell. So instead of putting it in a screen cage as I do with the butterflies, I put dirt and leaf litter in an old aquarium and put it in there with pine branches, one of its food sources.
This guy was almost full grown when I got it, so he ate just a little bit more then buried himself underground within a day and a half. I will keep the aquarium on my porch all winter, and hopefully he will emerge next May or June as a beautiful Imperial Moth (photo below courtesy of
File:Imperial moth Illinois.JPG
Over the weekend, one of the neighborhood kids brought me another large moth caterpillar that he found in the road! This is definitely the time of year that these caterpillars come down from the trees where they have been eating, and find a place to go into their cocoon or pupae phase. You can find them anywhere, so keep your eyes open for them! (Call me at 410-7147 if you find one and need someone to raise it! Ask for Karen.) Here's the caterpillar that my neighbor brought:
I identified it as a Polyphemus Moth caterpillar, another of the giant silkworm moths. Like the Imperial Moth caterpillar, this one is as big as a large index finger. I prepared an aquarium for it, and in less than 24 hours it had wrapped itself in some Dogwood leaves I placed inside, and had already spun its winter cocoon. It should emerge in May or June, and will look like this:
I have so much more to share with you but this entry has already gotten pretty long. I'll save some for next time. And in the meantime, I will have a new challenge: my friend Nancie brought me some Mexican Jumping Beans today from Arizona, which are actually seed pods that have been inhabited by a moth larva. The larvae "jump" while inside the seed pod, reacting to heat, thus the name "Jumping bean." I'm going to figure out how to keep them over the winter and see if the moths actually emerge from the pods in the spring. Stay tuned....! 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Summertime Blues

I have not been diligent about keeping up my blog lately. I blame that entirely on summertime. This summer in particular has been brutal, with intense heat and humidity; if the temperatures do drop, it's because we're having storms. The bottom line is I have not been out in the field searching for critters to photograph, which is what I love to do, and is the whole point of this blog! (I will also blame work, where I spend 40 hours a week plus the commute, hours that I cannot be nature watching. But I love my job, boss...!)

I have been watching what comes into my own Chesapeake yard when I'm home, and have taken the occasional photo when the opportunity presents itself. I'll share some of these photos with you this month.

As you know if you read my blog, I like to photograph birds and insects, particularly butterflies and dragonflies. In the past I've taken most of my photos with my telephoto lens (a Canon L series 100-400 with Image Stabilizer). But this summer I decided to make more use of my Canon Macro lens for my insect pictures.  The disadvantage of using the macro is that you do have to get very close to your subject, and insects tend to fly away from you. The advantage is that if you are able to get close, you get a better quality, sharper photo with better detail. Look at the American Snout butterfly at the top of this column; not only can you see its snout very clearly, but you can see the spots on its eyes and the stripes on its antenna (click on the photo to open a larger view).

Dragonflies are one of my favorite photo subjects. Even though I do not have a pond or live near a body of water, some of the more common local species do visit my yard. Below is a female Blue Dasher, perhaps our most adbundant dragonfly species. This species is fairly small, about 1" to 1 1/2" long, but with the macro lens you can see her features clearly, including her "face," which looks to me like a Dr. Seuss character from Whoville!

Here's another dragonfly visitor to my yard, a female Needham's Skimmer.

Everyone loves to take a photo of a bee on a flower! Here's mine for this month:

As I have for the past 8 or so years, I am raising and releasing butterflies this summer. I plant specific "host" plants to attract specific butterfly species, search those plants for eggs or caterpillars, then collect the caterpillars and place them in screen cages where predators cannot get to them. I feed them their host plants until they go into their chrysallis stage. When they emerge from the chrysallis as an adult butterfly, I release them. I have raised over 4000 butterflies of at least 20 different species, which is very gratifying to me.

One of the more unusual looking caterpillars that I raise is the Spicebush Swallowtail. In the caterpillar stage, they hide most of the time in the leaves of their host plant (Spicebush), which they "fold" over themselves and secure by spinning sticky, web-like threads; in effect, they create a sort of sleeping bag for themselves.

 As you can see, this caterpillar has a very well developed and effective defense mechanism; it scares off possible predators by resembling the head of a snake! In fact, all the markings you see on this caterpillar are only pigmentation, and not real "eyes" or "mouth." Even the white "catch-light" in the false eyes is white pigment, and not an actual reflection of light. This mimicry of a snake is called a "passive" defense mechanism.

Just before the Spicebush caterpillar goes into its chrysallis stage, its colors change radically. Here's a photo of one the day before it went into chrysallis -- again, all the features you see are just pigment; these guys do NOT have huge eyes!---

Somewhere between 10 and 14 days after it goes into a chrysallis stage, it will emerge as an adult Spicebush Swallowtail, below. When butterflies emerge, their wings are wet and they need some time to dry them before they can fly; that's why this butterfly is perched on my hand. If it could fly, it would be long gone!

Another species of butterfly that I've had a lot of success with this summer is the Red Admiral, one of my favorites. Its host plant is False Nettle, and so far this year I've raised somewhere around 30-40 of these beauties:

I haven't had many chances to photograph the birds in my yard this summer, but below are a couple of pics of one of the very active juvenile Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that have been frequenting my garden and my feeders. The adult males with the bright red gorget (throat) have already left; their southbound migration began around mid-July. The majority of the hummingbird migration will take place later this month and into early September. By mid-September, any hummingbirds you see at your feeder are birds that summered north of us and are now migrating south; they are different individuals than the ones you saw during the summer.

I love watching the juvenile hummingbird's antics; you see them chasing each other, defending favorite perches and food sources, diving like kamikaze pilots and chattering incessantly at each other. They are "adults in training," learning the skills they will need as adult breeders, learning to be "macho."

I always disliked the summertime, even as a child. I've just never been comfortable or tolerant of heat, bright sun and humidity. But my passion for raising butterflies and making my yard a bit of a nature sanctuary and watching what passes through has made the "summertime blues" much easier to bear.