I always look at milkweed plants for monarch caterpillars. My success rate is about .001 percent, but today I got lucky and found one on a plant right next to the trail. Monarchs lay their eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves and the caterpillar eats the leaf when it hatches. Milkweed is toxic and the caterpillar becomes toxic to would-be predators.
There were a ton of monarchs flying around too, as seen below.
The sun was starting to set behind the marsh, casting a golden glow on the backyard.
In this magical light, we could see dragonflies by the dozens, perhaps hundreds, zipping around the yard. Looking closer, aided by the light, we could see hundreds, if not thousands, of mosquitoes, presenting themselves as tiny specks in the air. Looking even closer, we could see the dragonflies chase down and eat the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes didn’t stand a chance against these perfectly engineered predators.
I went out to try my luck at photographing a dragonfly in midair. It’s been an elusive shot in my catalog of nature photos. Even with the sheer numbers of dragonflies and the perfect evening sun at my back, the shot proved to be a challenge. I somewhat met the challenge, however. I wouldn’t say I nailed the shot as it’s not ideally composed, focused, exposed or any other type of technical photography term you can think of. But, for my purposes, it’s not bad. I’m not shooting for National Geographic or anything.
Dragonflies are small, fast and can move in any direction. It’s not easy to get a good shot of a dragonfly when it’s perched, let alone zipping around in unpredictable patterns.
I tried to follow an individual dragonfly through the camera lens. That was a lesson in futility. Even if I could follow one (which I couldn’t) it would have been impossible for the autofocus mechanism to keep up. Manual focusing by panning the subject wouldn’t have worked either. Not even close.
So I tried a trick I used sometimes when I was a sports photographer. I focused on a spot and waited for something to enter the frame. Actually, in this case, there were so many dragonflies that they were constantly in the frame so I just held down the shutter. Just because they were in the frame doesn’t mean the shots came out OK. On the contrary, 99 percent of the photos were instantly deleted because they were out of focus, usually by a long shot.
But I kept trying and made adjustments to the camera as I went along and the sun continued to set. I have no idea how many photos I took, but it didn’t really matter. Digital cameras can hold lots of photos these days.
This would have been impossible to do with the “old” film camera. Imagine blowing through several rolls of expensive oil and paying the cost of having them developed only to see a bunch of blurry dots. That was our reality not too long ago.
Clearly, the dragonflies didn’t eat all of the mosquitoes as I donated a few pints of blood trying to get the shots. What is it about my ankles that mosquitoes like so much?
As I mentioned earlier, dragonflies are a perfect predator for their prey and a single dragonfly can catch and eat dozens or even hundreds of mosquitoes in a single day. Their four wings allow them to fly in any direction, or even hover, and their vision is outstanding. They catch prey with their legs and eat the catch immediately.
Despite their awesome flying ability, they can sometimes become the prey as well. I remember watching a green heron at a small pond years ago snapping dragonflies out of the air.
I see dragonflies on nearly every walk I take in the spring, summer and fall. But I don’t remember ever seeing such a scene with so many of them concentrated in one yard. Neither of the neighbors had this spectacle going on. It was ours to watch exclusively. It was one of those moments in nature you stumble upon from time to time.
Common yellowthroats are one of most familiar warblers we see in New England. While we are seeing many warblers pass through this time of year on their way south, yellowthroats remain one of the more common sightings. The male (pictured above) is easy to recognize with his black mask, but the female is a little more tricky, particularly in the fall when warblers are notoriously difficult to ID. Here are a few more shots to distinguish the female yellowthroat from other warblers passing through. Click here for a recent For the Birds column on yellowthroats.
It was an eagle. There was no doubt about that. I second-guessed myself only for a second because of where the sighting took place.
It was not on a remote lake in northern New England or on one of the islands in Long Island Sound. It was right along a highway.
We are all used to seeing hawks perched along the highway. In fact, when I drive to Pennsylvania a couple of times a year to visit family, I make it a point to count the number of red-tailed hawks I see perched in trees along Route 86. It’s usually between 10 and 15. Hey, it passes the time on a long drive.
I noticed from far away as I approached the scene that there was a bird perched in a tree overhanging a somewhat busy state highway. Even from a significant distance, I could tell it was not a hawk. The only question was whether it was an eagle or a vulture. It did not have the posture of a vulture, but rather the regal stance of an eagle.
I had just discovered a new berry tree at work and thought to myself how great it would be to see the birds raid the tree when the berries ripened.
At the time, the majority of the berries were red with a few purple ones mixed in. It wouldn’t be long now, I figured, before they were all purple and the birds would be feasting on them.
About a week later, I went back to check out the tree and it was practically picked clean. Apparently, the berries ripened quicker than I thought they would, and the birds wasted no time in having their feast.
I missed the flurry of activity that had the tree stripped clean, but I did see a lone gray catbird fly in and out to grab a few of the remaining berries. At least I wasn’t completely shut out of the show.
Sometimes the residual birds get unduly forgotten when a bird walk features a highlight species. In other words, the other solid bird sightings get pushed to the back of the memory bank. Then, sometime after the excitement of the highlight species fades, be it hours, days or weeks, the other birds come back to you.
This happened to me the other week when a pair of male indigo buntings highlighted an evening walk. It had been a while since I had seen buntings, and I became singularly focused on them when recounting the walk.
As I looked through the photos of that walk, I was reminded of some of the other birds I had seen. Before I took untold numbers of photos of the bright blue indigo buntings, I had snapped a few photos of a common yellowthroat pair. I had completely forgotten about those birds until I started looking through the photos.
The song sounded familiar, but it had been months since I last heard it.
There is an indigo bunting around here somewhere I said to myself and instantly abandoned my plans for a long, strenuous walk. I knew I’d be at that spot for a while.
I couldn’t tell if the song was coming from the left or the right. It sounded like it was coming from both directions. I thought it was just because I’m getting old and my hearing was playing tricks on me.
But sure enough, there were two male indigo singing: one to the left of me and one to the right.
The bunting to the right was in the shade as the evening sun was dipping below the tree line. The bird to the left was illuminated in that magical evening light. I turned my focus to that bird.
Thankfully, the bird was fairly cooperative and even posed for a few photos in a berry tree. It didn’t eat the berries, but rather just used the tree’s branches for a vantage point.
It had been a few years since I was able to get photographs of an indigo bunting. Photographing any bird is enough to get my blood pumping, but a bird like an indigo bunting really gets the heart racing — especially when they are being cooperative.
Male indigo buntings are one of the more striking birds we see in New England, right up there with scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks. Indigo buntings, like many songbirds, are sexually dimorphic, meaning the males and females look different. Also, like most birds that are dimorphic, the female is much duller than the male. The difference between the electric blue male and brown female is stark.
Birds? Not so much. At least not when compared to spring and fall migration periods, or the busy feeder activity ahead of a New England snowstorm.
Summer is a fun time to watch young birds being raised if you are lucky enough to witness that spectacle. Along with that, however, comes the fact that many birds are trying to stay hidden as much as possible until the young are ready to venture into the world.
The waterfront — with its waders and shorebirds — is usually the best place to be during the summer if you want to see birds. That was true the other day when Katie and I took a walk and heard yellowlegs in the distance and spotted a great blue heron on the top of a pine tree. The dusk sun gave the heron an orange glow.
But this summer is also hopping away from the water. Catbirds, blue jays, cardinals, mourning doves, nuthatches and Carolina wrens are constant companions in my yard. Goldfinches are coming around in force now as well.
Speaking of backyard birds, Stephen from Keene offered a tip in response to last week’s column about cleaning bird feeders. He cleans his feeders regularly using vinegar instead of bleach as he feels it’s safer for the birds. It’s a good and timely tip as feeders should be cleaned frequently in the summer.
In the woods, I’ve heard more veeries than I can ever remember hearing. The veery is a type of thrush with a strange up and down flute-like song that reminds me of the old Space Invaders video game. I’m glad they aren’t invaders from another dimension because I’ve heard so many of them this summer. Every walk seems to be accompanied by the strange song.
One day last week, I pulled into a parking lot and scanned the scene. A black-crowned night heron flew across the far side of a pond and settled into a tree. Grackles and red-winged blackbirds provided action in the foreground. A Canada goose caught my eye in another area of the water. Then I noticed a male wood duck sitting on the grass just beyond the goose. Wood ducks are notoriously wary, but this guy seemed fairly comfortable in close proximity to the parking lot.
Most wood duck sightings are from great distances or of the back end of one flying away with the duck’s “oo-week, oo-week” call tauntingly fading away. I was grateful for the close and long view of this beautiful duck, which was still (or already) in its gaudy breeding plumage.
It also seems to be a good year for eastern kingbirds. I’ve gone entire summers when I’ve seen one or two of the handsome, fierce birds. This summer, it seems, I’ve seen dozens of them in different locations. I think of kingbirds as a rural bird, but several of the sightings have been in very suburban — even bordering urban — locations. I’ll take the sightings where I can get them.
Here’s hoping summer keeps it up. If nothing else, August is a great time to wander into New England’s fields and meadows. The bobolinks are much quieter, but the butterflies, dragonflies and other insects are fun to observe and photograph.
What are you seeing out there this summer? Drop me a line and let me know