Surprise gifts from Mother Nature in 2018 – part 2: non-avian wildlife!

Birding is an activity I enjoy, especially since I can usually spot at least one bird during my outdoor excursions. I’d prefer to call myself a “wildlifer” rather than a “birder”, however, since all kinds of other wildlife also fascinate me. Here is a selection of some wildlife surprises and new species I saw last year, including a new plant – the honeyvine milkweed (Cynanchum laeve).

 

This vine is sometimes described simply as a native plant that spreads by seed and long roots; other websites call it a noxious weed. It does perhaps spread quickly but it is also a food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars so it seems like a desirable plant to me.

This mushroom was another one of my favorite vegetation spottings last year – it looks to me as if it is an animal with large ears.

Mammals are favorites of mine but I only see a restricted number regularly – white-tailed deer, Eastern squirrels, raccoons, Eastern chipmunks. When I get to see an opossum (Didelphis virginiana) – like one who visited the yard at night during our early December snowstorm, it was a treat. It seems many people dislike North Carolina’s state marsupial (and the only marsupial in North America) but it is a valuable neighbor since it eats up to 4000 ticks a week. There likely weren’t many ticks around for it to eat but I hope it found something for a meal!

   

This past year was my “year of the beavers” as I had a chance to follow these nature landscape architects in three different places. And as mentioned in a previous blog, I was so thrilled to get a shot of the warning tail-slapping behavior.

  

2018 was a good year for seeing new insects. Some are so tiny that you can’t really see their body patterns without magnification. Here are a few of my “discoveries”. The flies can be very interesting.

Sunflower seed maggot fruit fly (Neotephritis finalis)


Parasitic fly (Archytas)

2018 was a year for learning about reproduction among the bugs; not only did I see caterpillars but also chrysalids and arthropod parents caring for offspring. The green lynx spider (Peucetia viridans) is a very attentive mother; she often hangs her egg sac from a grass stalk and then encircles it with her body to keep predators away.

One green lynx at the NC Botanical Garden placed her egg sac underneath the “lid” of a pitcher plant and then hung out on that and neighboring plants to keep an eye on the sac. I was lucky to see one of the babies after it hatched.

Another spider was not so lucky – it became a meal for one of North Carolina’s endemic “special plants”, the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula).

North Carolina has many species of grasshoppers; I saw several species this past year, including several mating pairs. Here is a young short-horned grasshopper.

It’s always nice to see some pollinators.

 

  

Brown-winged striped sweat bee                        Small carpenter bee                                (Agapostemon splendens)                                   (Ceratina)

 

I got to see the chrysalids of two fritillary butterfly species, the variegated fritillary (Euptoieta Claudia, left) and the gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanilla, below).

Sometimes, I think the moths get a bum rap, being seen as poor cousins to the “beautiful butterflies”. But there are many really beautiful moths, like the lunate zale moth (Zale lunata) and delicate cycnia moth (Cycnia tenera).

  

I got to see several moth caterpillars this year; the experts at BugGuide were very helpful in identifying them for me.

   

Common tan wave moth                           Gold moth caterpillar  (Basilodes pepita)          (Pleuroprucha insulsaria)

 
Turbulent phosphila moth caterpillar (Phosphila turbulenta)

For the first time, I got to see an evergreen bagworm moth (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis). There were several hanging out in trees next to a rural farm pond – they did not restrict themselves to an evergreen tree but hung themselves from a persimmon, privet and cedar tree. I think the last photo shows the caterpillar as it was completing the “bag” into which it would insert itself.

    

In the summer, I was lucky to see a cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia).

   

In December, I discovered two cecropia chrysalids, as well as the cup-like chrysalis of a polyphemus moth (Antheraea Polyphemus, which was empty).

  

Another discovery was that the larvae of soldier beetles look like some type of caterpillar as well.

There were lots of katydids around, including the slender straight-lanced katydid (Conocephalus strictus) and the stockier Scudderia bush katydid.

 

  

Some new bugs appeared in my yard, including a plant bug with muted colors (not yet identified to species) and some more colorful scentless plant bugs (Niesthrea louisianica) on my Rose of Sharon shrubs.

  

  

A seed bug on a seed pod and a head-on photo of a millipede (Narceus americanus-annularis-complex) were cool sightings, too.

   

2018 was a good year for my observations of reptiles, too. Seeing a Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis) flash its red dewlap (also known as a throat fan) was not a new experience but the fact that it was only a foot away from me doing it was a surprise.

   

 

Seeing one of these anoles jump from one small flower twig to another in order to catch a bee for supper was a surprise – I didn’t know they eat bees. I felt a little sad that we lost a pollinator that way, but the anoles have to eat, too.

 

 

 

One day, when walking at the same wetlands where the anole hung out I came across some beautifully colored turtles. The yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta) had a beautiful pattern on its face.

 

 

 

The painted turtle (Chrysemys picta picta) with its long claws had some beautiful bright red striping. It had gotten a prime sunning spot on a log that another turtle wanted for itself; the first turtle held it off.

 

The second turtle circled around and tried to get on board from the other side but turtle No. 1 kept it at bay.

  

My snake encounters included seeing Northern water snakes and rat snakes. It was a beautiful red-bellied water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster) that caught me by surprise when it suddenly veered off its course toward me. I backed up and the reptile stopped approaching, flicking its tongue out as it explored what was going on.

My final spotting to share with you today is another gorgeous snake – a common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). It had been a long time since I had encountered one and this individual had quite vivid colors.

Next up – some beautiful raptors.

Costa Rican rambles 5A: the Talari Mountain Lodge

This edition of Costa Rican rambles will be a two-parter. Remember that you can click on a photo to see it larger and then click the back arrow to go back to the blog. The Talari Mountain Lodge, located in the El General Valley next to the Chirripo River, became our pied-à-terre for two nights. We had lush surroundings, as you can see from our view looking out of the dining area.

 

Several of the signs were made of old tires that had been artistically cut and painted – beautifully and colorfully done! Some hanging plant holders had also had a previous life as tires.

There were some other decorations, too – a brightly painted cart and some snakes (we only saw one real one during the trip).

Having gotten some coffee and tea, we set out to see the lodge surroundings before breakfast. After passing a strangler-fig covered tree (Ficus aurea), we stopped by the rooms in which some of our group were staying. There we were welcomed by a very handsome roadside hawk (Rupornis magnirostris).

We neared the river, which was rather low. Some of our group members managed to catch sight of an otter there a few times but I never had that sighting. I did see a sandpiper on a rock in the river, which our guide said was a spotted sandpiper but it looked like a solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria) to me.

 

The trees along the banks were filled with birds. One of the first that really caught my eye was the bay-headed tanager (Tangara gyrola). I would have given it a different common name, but its distinct head color really did set off its beautiful blue and green feathers, which looked almost neon in the bright sunlight  .

 

 

   

Now that spring has come to North Carolina, I’ve been having fun watching the blue-gray gnatcatchers building their nests. They have a counterpart in Costa Rica, called the tropical gnatcatcher (Polioptila plumbea). It seems to be about the same size as our gnatcatcher, with its gray feathers and tendency to move about a lot, but its head reminds me more of a Carolina chickadee. Perhaps this is what a hybrid blue-gray gnatcatcher/Carolina chickadee would look like.

 

The next bright bird to occupy my attention, while my fellow birders peered through their binoculars at other species, was the yellow-crowned euphonia (Euphonia luteicapilla). The adult males have bright yellow and blue plumage; I only saw younger males and a female who seemed to be checking out a nesting cavity.       

 

A scaly-breasted hummingbird (Phaeochroa cuvierii) put in a brief appearance, while several species of swifts were circling overhead.

On our way back to breakfast, I admired the lodge’s stone bird bath and noted they have an invasive plant that we have in North Carolina, too, the Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis).

 

   

Then I got some photos of a banded peacock (Anartia fatima) and a Cucullina ringlet butterfly (Hermeuptychia cucullina).

 

I was not able to find out the species (yet) for a brown skipper, a white moth and another pretty butterfly.

 

The feeders at the lodge had a black-headed male green honeycreeper (Chlorophanes spiza) visiting along with a lovely male Cherrie’s tanager (Ramphocelus costaricensis) whose red feathers looked like a fringed shawl covering his lower back. The next morning the female honeycreeper came by as well.

  

 

Our first trip of the day involved a visit to the UNA (Universidad Nacional) campus, where I had my first views of a double-toothed kite (Harpagus bidentatus). The stripe underneath its chin, along with its coloring, made it a very attractive bird for me.

 

 

 

   

We then drove to another university campus site, stopping along a road where we saw a white-crowned parrot (Pionus senilis) in the distance.

   

 

Our guide, Steve, had warned us to wear hats as we would be in areas with lots of cicadas, which are called chicharras locally. We had already heard them in the morning – there seemed to be at least hundreds of them in various wooded areas. The 23 Costa Rican species emerge from underground during the breeding season of several bird species that feed on them, such as motmots, trogons and flycatchers. Their cacophony of mating calls was sometimes so loud that you had to speak loudly to other people to be heard over it. But why would we need hats – don’t they just perch in the trees and call?

As I stood on the road, photographing the parrot, I thought we had run into a quick shower – then I realized what the slightly sticky (to me) droplets were – cicada rain!!! The cicadas drink xylem, which is tree sap, and urinate as they process the nutrients– when they do so in large numbers and you are standing underneath them, an umbrella would not be out of place. I tried to photograph the rain to give an idea of the falling pee.

 

 

   

More on Talari Lodge and its surroundings in the next blog!

Signs of spring in an uncertain season

As tiny snowflakes fall gently from the sky, my thoughts have left Costa Rica for a bit and turned to the weird weather we’ve been having in North Carolina. I didn’t move to this state for its weather but in the time I’ve been here, I’ve grown to appreciate the climate – we have four seasons but the winters have not seemed overly long and the spring and autumn temperatures are often fabulous.

 

This year, much of February was unseasonably warm in our Piedmont area and people, as well as plants and animals, were enjoying the warm sun and mild temperatures. Crocuses and irises poked their blooms up a bit early and birds were checking out nest boxes.

 

 

 

Butterflies, like this question mark (Polygonia interrogationis) made an appearance (it was getting sustenance from some dog poop left on a bridge!) and Carolina anoles (Anolis carolinensis) emerged to sun in the warmth.

 

 

 

Then on 12 March, we had a day of snow. The male Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) and Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) sat amid the flakes between trips to the feeders.

 

 

The female ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) didn’t seem too perturbed, but the male resident was not happy – his bedraggled red crown was in evidence, both when chasing her away from the feeders and when he was just coping with the wet snow.

 

 

 

When I left for my Costa Rican rambles, it looked like the spring weather might give way to colder temperatures; when I returned 10 days later, it was definitely more winter-like. Then, this past weekend, we had a brief respite. Despite a cold morning start, friend Karla and I visited the Guilford County Farm. The farm personnel had marked off a section of the gravel parking lot where killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) had placed a nest with four eggs. When the babies hatch, they can walk away from the nest as soon as their downy feathers dry.

 

They won’t be able to fly until about 25 days later, but they can feed themselves. The parents will continue tending to and defending them, however. In the meantime, the parents do not come near the nest so as not to draw attention to it and they will try to lead any potential predators away with a broken wing display. They do fly near the nest often, however, and keep an eye on it in between their own feeding sessions.

Karla quickly spotted Wilson’s snipes (Gallinago delicata) flying over the pond and settling at the water’s edge. As we drew closer, we could spot them occasionally, but they blended really well with the vegetation. Below are a couple photos taken at a fair distance with a high ISO and lots of grain – but you can try to see if you can spot the six snipes in the first photo and the two in the second.

Fortunately, one flew in a bit later and I got a couple more recognizable photos!

  

Some Canada geese (Branta canadensis) flew in and headed for the same corner of the pond.

Then, as I was trying to find the snipe in the grass again, I noticed a killdeer looking for insects nearby.

She was accompanied by a male, who at first seemed to be preening but who was actually trying to impress her with some courtship displays.

 

The males will show off their feathers for their (potential) mates, especially raising and displaying their bright tail feathers as a fan.

The female would walk away and he would eventually move closer in an attempt to get a response.

Nearby, we saw three Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos), two of whom seemed to be males battling over a female. Their dispute was very vigorous and lasted quite a long time. In fact, when they flew away, they were still going after one another!

 

During our continuing walk in the fields and woods near the farm, we saw many other bird species including Eastern meadowlarks, brown creepers, woodpeckers and a pair of kestrels. The woods were kind of strange in that there were very few bird nests visible in the bare trees and also no Eastern gray squirrel nests – in fact, we did not see one squirrel the entire time we were there, which was very odd. An adorable baby donkey (Equus asinus) did greet us as we walked by, though, and our long excursion (about 6 hours) gave us a nice taste of spring. Hopefully, when the snow flurries today end, we will see spring weather come back quickly and be able to enjoy the flora and fauna of this season again. Next blog – back to Costa Rica!

  

Costa Rican rambles 2 – exploring the fauna of the hotel botanical garden

My first close-up spotting of wildlife in Costa Rica was a butterfly familiar to me from North Carolina – a beautiful monarch (Danaus plexippus). Lots of little flies were buzzing about but they were a bit too quick for photos.

I wasn’t familiar with the first bird I saw, but after running into fellow traveler Dave, he kindly identified it for me as a white-winged dove (Zenaida asiatica).

 

  

Later and the next morning, I saw several wandering about the grounds and at the birdbath.

  

Another common dove was the white-tipped one (Leptotila verreauxi).

 

While roaming around, I ran into two more fellow travelers, Joy and Janet; together with Dave, we climbed a wonderful lookout tower placed in a strategic spot for birders. It looked down on a pond in one direction and a birdbath in another, where I saw the clay-colored thrush (Turdus grayi) – Costa Rica’s national bird, known locally as the yigüirro.  Its beautiful song is said to welcome the green rainy seasons and these birds were abundant in this garden and the other sites we would be visiting.

  

A couple species of hummingbirds appeared but I was only able to photograph the rufous-tailed hummer (Amazilia tzacatl).

  

While looking for it, I spotted what was to become one of my favorite Costa Rican birds, the rufous-naped wren (Campylorhynchus rufinuch).

  

I just fell in love with its brown speckled appearance and followed a pair flitting about the flower-laden bushes in the area.

 

Some “Northern migrants” put in appearances, including a Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula) and some yellow-throated vireos (Vireo flavifrons).

   

 

Birds flitting in the treetops further included a few yellow warblers (Setophaga petechia) and Tennessee warblers (Leiothlypis peregrina), which I had not yet seen in the USA.

 

A beautiful blue-gray tanager (Thraupis episcopus) flew by and I saw my first male Cherrie’s tanager, for which I’ll post a better photo in a later blog. 

The high perch which we birders had offered me a first spotting of the variegated squirrel (Sciurus variegatoides), which lives up to its name with individuals showing very different coloring on their bodies.

  

I left the lookout tower to investigate more of the 10-acre garden and as it began raining, found a spectacular wasp or hornet nest. It looked quite different from varied perspectives, the underneath view making it look like a pair of pants hung from the tree by its legs.

 

 

 

 

 

The garden featured several man-made hives for stingless bees (Tetragonisca angustula); I didn’t see any buzzing about but perhaps they preferred to stay indoors during the rain.

Back near the lookout tower, I began hearing a pair of birds calling to one another with beautiful songs and notes. I was looking around for some small songbird but suddenly realized the concert was being offered by a pair of large melodious blackbirds (Dives dives), who really deserve their common name!

 

A somewhat more raucous set of cries alerted me to the arrival of a group of brown jays (Psilorhinus morio). They are much larger than the blue jays I see in my own garden and certainly seemed more social; they tend to move around in flocks. At first sight, they seemed a bit drab but a closer look shows they have a pretty muted appearance.

 

 

As I began following a hummingbird in an effort to get a close-up, Janet and Joy alerted me to a trio of Inca doves (Columbina inca) who were smushing together in a compact group for the night. It was almost dark and I had to adjust my camera settings a lot to be able to photograph them; they were becoming barely visible in the vegetation but oh so cute. Occasionally, one would leave the line and sit atop the other two but those below always got the third one to come down to the branch again.

Seeing some very cute rufous-collared sparrows (Zonotrichia capensis) foraging in the grass.

The next morning began with a spotting of a pair of masked tityras (Tityra semifasciata), who were difficult to photograph in the early dawn light.

A Hoffman’s woodpecker (Melanerpes hoffmannii, right) came by briefly and as the day started to brighten, a tropical kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus) alighted on a branch.

  

It was after that sighting that I discovered a new bird (for me) – the social flycatcher (Myiozetetes similis); I had been calling all birds that looked like these great kiskadees – and they do look very similar to be sure!  And if readers see I have identified a bird incorrectly, please let me know!

  

My first evening and morning in Costa Rica taught me that the bird photography could be challenging; the lush vegetation meant that the birds are often in between dark leaves and shadows. This meant that I was shooting at high ISOs much of the time, with somewhat grainy photos as a result. I guess perhaps I should finally look into getting a photo editing program!

 

A morning at the Butterfly House – with birds, butterflies and more!

I have all these ideas for blogs in mind, and photos to accompany them as well, but I keep taking new photos and then get behind in posting. One day, the thought came that I could just not go out to photograph and settle down to writing some blogs, but going out for nature walks as often as possible has become a real need in my life. Scientists are saying that “forest bathing” is good for your health and being outdoors and observing and learning about the flora and fauna certainly contributes to my having a happier state of mind, while contributing to my overall stamina (but not weight loss, more’s the pity). I also enjoy “shoreline, field and meadow, creek, river, and backyard bathing.”

It came to me today, after spending 3.5 hours tearing out invasive plants from my yard, that one blog that doesn’t need to be postponed because I keep getting new shots to include is this one – my visit to the Durham Museum of Life and Science Butterfly House with the Carolinas’ Nature Photographers Association.

The Museum had opened the Butterfly House for the morning for our group alone so that we could take photos for several hours without people walking in front of our shots. The Butterfly House is a 35-foot tall, glassed-in dome with many tropical plants such as the Angel’s Trumpet (Brugmansia). One of the four species of birds living in the conservatory, the Oriental white-eye (Zosterops palpebrosus), was enjoying a meal of tropical flowers. The bird would pluck a petal from the stem and then insert its beak into the base; the white-eyes have a special brush-like appendage at the end of the tongue which helps them forage for nectar and pulp.

   

The white-eyes were brought into the conservatory to help control leaf pests and ants.

 

The butterflies were gorgeous and the subject of many photos in our group. The postman butterflies have variations within a species.

  

Common postman (Heliconius melpomene)

 

Red postman (Heliconius erato)

Another group were the longwing butterflies.

  

Cydno longwing (Heliconius cydno)

  

Sara longwing (Heliconius sara)

 

Tiger longwing (Heliconius hecale)              Doris longwing (Heliconius doris)

  

Numata longwing (Heliconius numata)

As we looked at the butterflies that landed low on flowers, we were able to see the Crested wood partridges (Rollulus roulroul) that are endemic to Asia. They breed in the conservatory, laying their eggs behind dense shrubs, and they help control soil pests in the Butterfly House.

   

Male                                                                        Female

At one point, a museum staff-member brought us a group of insects to see up close. One of them, I certainly would not have touched, although it was fascinating to watch: the Asian forest scorpion (Heterometrus).

      

The Chilean rose tarantula (Grammaostola rosea) was a really beautiful tarantula that blended in well with the tree against which it was placed.

The dragon-headed katydid (Eumegalodon blanchardi) was an interesting creature. I do think its head looks more like a horseshoe crab, though!

 

   

The rhinoceros beetle was nice and shiny – I once saw a young boy in Thailand who had one as a pet; he was taking it for a walk in the forest and it looked to be about as big as his hand.

 

It’s interesting how the patterns on the dorsal and ventral sides of a butterfly can be so very different – you may need to look up both sides to get a good ID of the species. This is especially true of the Blue morpho (Morpho peleides).

   

The same is true for the male scarlet peacock (Troides amphrysus)

    

The female shows similarities in her dorsal and ventral wings.

   

 

The owl butterfly (Caligo memnon) was an impressively large individual.

 

 

 

 

 

The Malayan birdwing (Troides amphrysus) spent much of its time huddled up against the windows but I was able to catch it on a flower.

 

 

 

Two kinds of black-and-white butterflies were fluttering about, the Asian paper kite (Idea leuconoe) and the zebra mosaic (Colobura dirce) from Central and South America.

 

 

 

   

 

There is a glass case in the conservatory that has lines of chrysalids hanging on wires. At any time, you may see one or several butterflies that have just emerged and are unfolding and drying their wings. This individual was perched against the glass for the unfurling, giving an excellent view of beautiful feathery antennae.

 

 

 

There were two more birds in the Butterfly House that were beautiful to see. Both from Australia, the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata) was difficult to photograph as it spent a lot of time very high up in the dome.

  

The most beautiful – to me – was the Gouldian finch (Erythrura gouldiae). The colors are a bit like the American painted bunting but they look as if they were put on in blocks of color like a kind of avian Mondriaan painting. I followed this bird around several times in the hopes of getting some nice photos and finally succeeded in my opinion. I’d love to have this bird coming to my feeders!