Posts Tagged ‘nature’

Misunderstood Moths


Friday, July 26th, 2013


Pictured Tiger Moth

Pictured Tiger Moth © Leroy Simon, Visuals Unlimited

In the lepidoptera family, butterflies are royalty. They’ve even got royal names like Monarch and Viceroy.

Butterfly gardens are popular attractions around the world. If you want, you can even order boxes of live butterflies, Monarchs and Painted Ladies, that can be released at your wedding or other festive occasion.

Can you imagine anyone releasing moths at a wedding? Guests would be horrified. They’d run screaming to the hills. You might just as well release bats. How about a commercial moth garden? Think it would attract many customers? Not on your life!

If butterflies are royalty, moths are the underclass…Lepidopteral Peons.

They’re night creatures. Most of us only see the “ugly” grey or dusky brown varieties. They flutter menacingly around your porch lights to no apparent purpose. And if you touch one, a creepy kind of dust comes off of it. And, of course, they hide in your closets and snack on your best shirts.

If Bart Simpson were to yell “Eat my shorts!” at a moth, some of them would reply “Gladly!”

But moths are victims of stereotyping. True, some of them are pests — not just to damaging clothing, but also wreaking havoc on forests and grain storage.

There are over 135,000 different varieties of moth in the world, and 13,000 in North America from over 70 families. Ten to fifteen times more moths than butterflies.

Some of them are dazzling, and people usually confuse them with butterflies. Many of them have wonderful names — like Blinded Sphinx or Confused Eusarca or Vagabond Crambus or Darling Underwing. How can you dislike creatures with names like that?! For beautiful moths, check out the Ornate Tiger Moth or the Spanish Moon Moth. Or the Zigzag White Banded Noctuid, combining impressive name and impressive color and patterns.

Io Moth

Io Moth showing eyespots © E. R. Degginger, Color-Pic, Inc.

Some butterflies look like moths (especially the skippers), and some moths look like butterflies. How do you tell the difference? It’s all in the antennae. Moths have feathery, thickened, comb-like or threadlike antennae, not hooked or knobbed like butterflies. And moths usually fold their wings in, like bees.

National Moth Week is not a joke. Check out these misunderstood fluttering wonders and share your sightings on NatureShare.

Discovering the Lek of the Prairie Chicken


Friday, June 28th, 2013


Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Lesser Prairie-Chicken, adult female © Rick and Nora Bowers/VIREO

Birding is not just about finding birds and ticking them off your life lists. It’s about the replenishing experience of being outdoors, the other kinds of fauna and flora you see, and even the wacky and wonderful people you meet.

To get that full-value birding experience, you have to go to Colorado to see the Prairie Chickens. These birds are among the great, eccentric performers in the world; the scenery there is magnificent; the wild animals (pronghorns, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, etc.) are not terribly difficult to find; and you’ll meet some memorable folks while you’re at it.

Fred Dorenkamp is one of those memorable characters. He’s been monitoring Lesser Prairie Chickens in the vicinity of his Lamarr, Colorado ranch for many years. They’re endangered grassland birds, and if they survive, it’ll be because of Fred and people like him.

Lesser Prairie Chickens have been dancing on ancestral leks for eons.

These leks are the bird-equivalent of 70s singles bars. They’re places where horny, amped-up young males assemble to impress the few hot young females who show up. They usually outnumber the females about 5 or 6 to 1. Sometimes more.

To see these prairie chickens you have to arrive at their leks well before dawn in March and April. That means getting up at 4:00 am and meeting Fred for a ride through pitch darkness to a grassy field in the middle of nowhere. You ride in a bouncy school bus that’s only somewhat younger than Fred (he’s in his 80s). It’s uncomfortable and full of people, parkas, backpacks and spotting scopes.

In a growly, nasal voice worthy of a cartoon character Fred presents his rules: keep quiet and keep still. Any noise or movements will spook the birds.

After an hour of anxious waiting, the lek is bright enough that a few dark shadows appear. The performances are already underway.

The males strut around, they stomp, they scurry, they bow and shuffle, they jump up and down, and they fight. They puff out their gaudily-colored throat patches, they erect their head feathers so they look like horns, and they rattle their wings. If you can get close enough, you can hear them cackle and coo.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Lesser Prairie-Chicken adult male, displaying © Greg Lasley/VIREO

The females hardly seem impressed. But they eventually find suitable mates.

After an hour or so, the birds all fly off, and we head back to Fred’s ranch. His cattle dog Bella greets us, and we are ushered into a low shed where his wife Norma has prepared a full ranch breakfast.

The room features a stuffed prairie chicken and a large color photograph for those days when the real live birds don’t show up. You can’t add a taxidermist’s work to your life list. Nor is the experience quite the same.

Later that day Fred was to hitch his horses up to a buckboard and transport a coffin to the local cemetery. He’ll probably go out the same way. But I hope he has many good years before then — to help protect the prairie chickens and shepherd birders to their leks.

Throwback Thursday: Flowers for Father’s Day


Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

Butterfly Orchid (Encyclia tampensis) © Jungle Pete

Throwback Thursday: Flowers for Father’s Day by Jungle Pete

Originally Posted June 18th, 2012

The Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve is a nine-mile long, third of a mile wide, linear strand of forest in Fort Myers, Florida. I assume the name “Nine Mile Cypress Slough Preserve” had already been taken. The 2500-acre preserve is home to a remarkable diversity of plants and wildlife, many of which can be seen on a two and half mile boardwalk.

My dad and I came out here years ago and while others were quick to speed around the circuit we stopped and sat on a bench. We watched Green Anoles flaring their dewlaps in a reptilian show of dominance. We watched a Yellow Rat Snake glide between cypress knees. We spotted a female Northern Cardinal flitting from branch to branch and we listened to a Carolina Wren belt out an unimaginably loud call for such a small bird. A couple of people walked by at a brisk pace and dejectedly remarked that there was nothing to see here. I’ve heard this complaint repeated many times through the years no matter where I go. I’m hoping they’re referring to the wildlife and not me.

I spent Father’s Day at the Six Mile Cypress this year. The rains have yet to fill the swamp and I found myself saying how little there was to see. Thinking about my visit with my father, my wife and baby stopped and took it all in.


Butterfly Orchid (Encyclia tampensis) © Jungle Pete

Clinging to a Pop Ash, about ten feet off the dry swamp floor was a beautiful Florida Butterfly Orchid (Encyclia tampensis). This bee pollinated epiphyte (a plant that grows on another plant) gets its name from the way the flowers dance in the wind like butterflies. The relatively common orchid blooms from May through August from central Florida south through the Everglades. The plant is not parasitic but does get support from the tree and nutrients and water from its heightened position.

We spotted five different flowers in the preserve today which is five more than I’ve seen before here. It helped to have beautiful yellow flowers cast about in the breeze but I might have missed them had I not stopped to look up and around.

I couldn’t be with my father today but here are some flowers for Father’s Day.


Butterfly Orchid (Encyclia tampensis) © Jungle Pete

Throwback Thursday: Buffet Mixer


Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

Throwback Thursday by Jungle Pete: Buffet Mixer

Originally Posted June 2011

Buffet Mixer © Jungle Pete

There are a variety of benefits to doing things in groups. Consider the last cookout you attended. Someone else bought the food. Someone else cooked and cleaned up. There was less risk of being eaten by a predator. Communal roosting makes sense too. Eating and roosting together makes sense for Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets and White Ibis.

More ears and eyes means predators are at a disadvantage during a sneak attack. While roosting, huddling can conserve warmth for those with the best spots in the roost. The downside is when you head out for breakfast in the morning everyone follows. The older and experienced birds tolerate social parasitism in exchange for safety in numbers. There is a pecking order and bigger birds can dominate others in the flock.

Finding food is also easier with many eyes looking. Once located, the buffet commences. Here a flock of Great White Egrets, Snowy Egrets and a few White Ibis have found a high concentration of fish and frog eggs to feast on.

Around the outskirts of the buffet are Little Blue Herons who are exhibiting commensalism. As the Egrets and Ibis stir things up, the Little Blue Herons feed on what the rest of the birds are not interested in. Essentially commensalism is when one species feeds among others and benefits without harming or benefiting the main species. In this case the Little Blue Heron is the guy that came to the party with the friend you invited. Little Blues are twice as successful when feeding commensally as opposed to individually.

May marked the end of the dry season in Florida which generally runs from December through May 15th. As the wetlands begin to fill with water and prey species re-colonize the marshes and swamps, many of the wading birds will rely less on communal feeding and venture out to forage solo. After a long day of hunting, it’s back to the communal roost for an evening of preening and sleep. Party on.

Throwback Thursday: Ocelots in the Sky Islands


Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Ocelot © C. Allan Morgan

Throwback Thursday: Ocelots in the Sky Islands by Sheri Williamson

Originally Posted May 23rd, 2012

A little cat has been making big news in Arizona. Back in November 2009, a remote camera in the Huachuca Mountains, placed by volunteers with Tucson-based Sky Island Alliance, captured a blurry but recognizable photo of an Ocelot. This was the first solid evidence for the species’ presence in Arizona in almost 50 years.

Tantalizing to be sure, but anyone who spends time in the wild knows just how rare it is to see even the relatively common Bobcat. That’s why it was so exciting to hear on February 8, 2011 that dogs had treed an Ocelot in the Huachucas. The animal, which appeared to be a healthy adult male, was allowed to go on its way unharmed after photo and video documentation. It was much grayer and shorter-nosed than the more familiar tropical subspecies, as befits an Ocelot of the colder, more arid Southwest.

Four months later, the Monument fire swept through the southern part of the Huachuca Mountains, causing many to fear for the life of this very special feline neighbor. The story recently took an optimistic turn in late April, when a private citizen’s remote camera captured new Ocelot photos in the Huachucas. These are being examined by biologists with the Arizona Game & Fish Department and compared with the 2011 photos. Whether or not the spot patterns match, we know that there is still at least one Ocelot roaming Arizona’ssky islands.”

Less than 40 miles as the raven flies from the Arizona encounters, other remote cameras at El Aribabi Conservation Ranch in Sonora, Mexico have recorded multiple Ocelots and at least one Jaguar in addition to Bobcats and Mountain Lions. The bigger felines can no longer travel freely where the border fence has been completed, but I’m glad there’s room for the Ocelot to slip through.

-Sheri Williamson

Spring Wildflowers


Monday, May 6th, 2013

Spring Wildflowers

What I’m looking forward to this spring…

On my two acre wooded lot in Woodstock, Vermont, the spring time treats me to three of my favorite wildflowers – Purple Trillium, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and Wild Columbine.  The Wild Columbine is distinct from the Red Columbine of the west and prefers rocky, wooded, or open slopes and parts of my woods is perfect habitat.  Jack-in-the Pulpit prefers damp woods and grows in two spots.  Purple Trillium has a special place in my heart.  My dad transplanted several plants from the Adirondack Mountains in our backyard and they bloomed every spring for as long as my parents lived in the house (over 50 years) and I imagine that they are still blooming 20 years later in memory of my parents and brother.  I also love the regional names we have for this flower in the northeast, Wakerobin and Stinking-Benjamin.  I wonder who Benjamin was and why he was honored, having his name associated with this lovely wildflower. (Or was it his smell.)

Purple Trillium

Purple Trillium © Charlie Rattigan


Jack-in-the-Pulpit © Charlie Rattigan

Wild Columbine

Wild Columbine © Charlie Rattigan

Photo Essay: Brown Pelicans


Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

Photo Essay: Brown Pelicans by Charlie Rattigan

Boca Grande, Florida Gasparilla Island  (26.738520 , -82.264413)

Just after sunrise on April 10, 2013 nearly 100 Brown Pelicans, Laughing Gulls, and Common Terns began a feeding frenzy several meters off shore from the Gulf beach just south of Gasparilla Island State Park.  Of the many pelicans feeding, it was not unusual to see as many as five or six birds rise up and dive in quick succession.  The activity lasted well over an hour and was repeated the next day.  The weather was bright and sunny and the wind out of the east and calm.  It was only these mornings that I saw this behavior and suspect that when the wind shifted to a southwesterly direction the fish moved way from the shore.

Divining Brown Pelican

Divining Brown Pelicans © Charlie Rattigan

five pelicans

Brown Pelicans © Charlie Rattigan

knifing into the water

Brown Pelicans knifing into the water © Charlie Rattigan

Brown Pelican Birds

Brown Pelicans © Charlie Rattigan

pelican in various poses

Brown Pelicans © Charlie Rattigan

Pelican takes off

Brown Pelican takes off © Charlie Rattigan

Pelicans dive 1

Brown Pelicans preparing to dive © Charlie Rattigan

Throw Back Thursday: Happy Birthday John James Audubon!


Thursday, April 25th, 2013

To celebrate John James Audubon’s 228th Birthday on April 26th download all Audubon Single Subject Apps for only $0.99! Available for iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Android, KindleFire & NOOK.  (Sale runs 4/25/13-4/29/13)

Bluebirds © John James Audubon

Today birders and naturalists around the world are celebrating the 228th (this year) birthday of John James Audubon, the French-American naturalist and artist.

An iconic figure in ornithology, Audubon revolutionized the practice of field identification, created fantastical yet realistic works of art, and worked hard to follow his passion of illustrating birds. Indeed, his name is emblazoned across the top of this page – now the figurehead of an organization synonymous with birds and conservation.

California Quail

California Quail © John James Audubon

Here are some brief – and perhaps less-known – facts about Audubon:
1. Audubon was born in Haiti, raised in France, and moved to Pennsylvania at age 18 to avoid conscription to Napolean’s army.
2. After moving from southeastern Pennsylvania to Kentucky (with his wife Lucy), Audubon was briefly thrown in jail due to bankruptcy from a failed business venture.
3. Besides the familiar collection of his paintings, Birds of North America, Audubon released Ornithological Biographies (life histories of various bird species) and Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (a compilation of illustrations and text, started by Audubon and completed by his sons after his death).

His paintings, though, are what define him for modern birders. The birds’ unique poses – that attempted to bring some life and nobility to the dead specimens he often used as guides – invoke the extraordinary from the common.

Brown Pelican Birds

Brown Pelican © John James Audubon

It is interesting to reflect back on the days before high-quality optics were widely available for the study of birds. It was acceptable- actually the norm back then- to go out and “collect” specimens, a euphemism for killing birds to study. Studying these lifeless forms formed the basis for his artwork, and it is actually quite amazing that he was able to incorporate such life and action into his paintings. I can only imagine what his artwork would have looked like if he had been able study live birds in equal detail. Would his paintings have become as iconic?

So let’s celebrate the artist, his legacy, and the organization that bears his name. Happy 228th birthday to John James Audubon!

Great Blue Herons are Back in Manitoba


Monday, April 22nd, 2013
Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron, adult © Arthur Morris/VIREO

Great Blue Herons are Back in Manitoba by Gene Walz

Those birds brave or foolish enough to return to Manitoba this week shine in the sky as if they are lit from within. And lit with a 500 watt bulb.

The snow has not melted here yet. Still a 2-foot mattress of white in many places. The sun reflecting off the snow turns raptors and geese into shining bird-ghosts, their white undersides brighter than bright.

Even birds that don’t have white undersides look white. A Great Blue Heron flew over me, and it shone so brightly that for a second I thought it might be a white morph (Great White Heron) or an intermediate (Wurdeman’s). A closer look revealed its silvery blue feathers shining like a brand new quarter.

Great Blue Heron, adult white morph (Great White Heron)

Great Blue Heron, adult white morph (Great White Heron) © Adrian & Jane Binns/VIREO

Great Blue Herons look so relaxed, so laid-back when they fly. The wings beat slowly and steadily. The long neck coils back on itself in a kind of lazy slouch. Not determinedly stretched out straight in front like cranes or geese.

I have no idea how this intrepid heron is going to find food. The rivers are still frozen two feet thick. (Ice-out usually occurs on April 1.) Marshes and streams  may not thaw for a month. It’ll be a while before the fish and frogs and slugs and bugs that suit a heron’s palate will make an appearance.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron © Arthur Morris/VIREO

Once the ice melts and the heron’s food supply make an appearance, this bird stalks its prey with the proverbial patience of Job. It stiffens into a feathered statue, its bill and long neck poised like a javelin. Then it springs!

But that’s for later. If a heron were to try that now, it would shatter its bill into splinters and end up with a very sore neck. I hope it’s got a good reserve of fat from its warmer wintering ground. It’s still winter up here.

Throw Back Thursday: Variations in Rough-legged Hawks


Wednesday, April 17th, 2013
Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk by Lisa Densmore

Location: Lima, Montana

If you’re wondering where Lima (pronounced LI-ma, like the bean), Montana is, you are not geographically challenged. With due respect to the residents of this small ranching community in the southwestern part of the Treasure State, the only reason Lima entered my life was because we passed through it on the way home after a weekend in Idaho. I’m not apt to forget it. It took a long time to travel through Lima, not due to traffic – we might have seen two cars in two hours on the open road on which we traveled – but because we saw so many Rough-legged Hawks (Buteo lagopus).

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk by Lisa Densmore

They perched everywhere, on the irrigation pipes, on the tops of electrical poles, on fence posts… In this hawk-rich environment, I gained a new appreciation for this rodent-eating raptor, which is on the large side for a buteos, averaging 19 to 24 inches tall. With so many of the species in one place, I realized how much variation there could be from one to another. The typical Rough-legged Hawk has a dark belly, though it may be blotchy. A black patch normally shades the carpal joint where the wing bends, but not always or it might be very small. The wings have lots of white on the underside, and its white tail has a black band near its end, but the black morph has a mostly dark tail. ID-ing a Rough-legged Hawk can be challenging if you don’t already know the bird. It’s more diverse than Grand Central Station during rush hour. Fortunately, it lives in a less populated environment than mid-town Manhattan, making it easy to spot.

I enjoyed seeing its color variations. The phenomenon is not unique to Rough-legged Hawks. While each avian on my Audubon Birds app has a common look, variations occur. Have you seen birds-of-a-color that really are not?