Saturday, July 27, 2013

June 2013: Bug Wedding or Showdown... on a lily pad

We got new Nikon binoculars and to my delight it proved as effective magnifying the bugs on the pond as it did the birds in the trees. That said, it took me awhile to adjust to how large small things can seem when they hop just 10 feet in front of you and you are looking at them with 8X magnification. At first glance I thought I was seeing crayfish prancing on top of one of the small pads in the big pond on our land.

I have seen crayfish prance in the throes of bluffing and fighting but never on such a small venue.

I realized that I wasn’t seeing crayfish rearing up waving their claws when I noticed two dragonflies on neighboring pads seemingly observing the bugs one-tenth their size.

Once while visiting a girlfriend’s family in Iowa, her father upped and took us all to Minneapolis to see Strindberg’s Dance of Death at the Guthrie Theater with its "thrust stage", almost in the round. Here I was almost 50 years later watching a dance of some sort in a sort of theatre in the round.

Two of the bugs began to jump up on each other while the other bugs stood riveted in place like the chorus in an opera (which I have never seen in the round, so perhaps I shouldn’t continue that metaphor.)

This being June, I soon thought I might be witnessing a wedding with the ceremonial groping descending into consummation of the marriage on the spot.

Anyway I offer the edited video that I took.

I should be taking what I saw seriously, and less dramatically. I am not sure if only two of the bugs fought or mated (really looks like a fight to me) and whether the bug that flew off at the end was one of them, and whether the bug that stepped over to that spot the flying bug vacated had been in the fray. I have done some directing in my day, and in the round, but never blocked a scene so poignant as this. Then again, I never had actors who could fly.

Even with the binoculars, I never got a good enough look at the bugs to hazard a guess as to what kind they are. However two week later I was paddling my kayak among the blooming water lilies in South Bay,

Apart from enjoying the beautiful flowers, and there are none more beautiful in my opinion, I observe the bugs on the flowers and pads. In June flies land on the pads, but by late July and August, the aphids take over.

When I went paddling on June 30, I had just talked to some people who had come up to the river for a memorial service. They shared the banter among family and friends about what to do with the deceased’s ashes. It was decided to spread them from a boat speeding down the middle the river channel. As gentle waves rocked the beautiful lilies and pads, I could think of no better place for my ashes, spread here and there on the hundreds of pads, careful not to inconvenience any aphids. (Waves whipped up by a good wind, a frequent occurrence, would soon cleanse the pads of my remains.)

What a reverie. Then I floated by some pads on which stood the same kind of bugs I saw on the smaller pads on the pond on my land. There was no drama. They were all alone.

So I got a good look at one and a good photo.

Still checking the guides to figure out what kind of bug it is.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

June 2013: The Quiet Dignity of a Heron's Croaking

There is nothing quite like the majesty of the great blue heron framed by the blue sky as it perches high on a tree. A heron catches fish by wading into the water. It makes no noise. Its thin legs leave no wake. Poised in the water herons define the silence of still water

Until you get too close

This June, perhaps because the water level kept rising so quickly, I invariably flushed herons out of trees as I paddled around South Bay. Thank Windows Movie Maker for the weird effect when I extracted that still out of the video clip. I prize the video clip below because the heron didn’t start croaking when it flew off, as they usually do. It stayed rooted to the tree as it dressed me down, which made me a little nervous. Didn’t a heron once try to stab John James Audubon?

The river rose because we had more rain than usual in June and that flooded the old ponds in the interior of the island that the beavers had abandoned years ago. I can’t shake the habit of retracing the old route through the swamps which once led me to upwards of 20 beavers, but those days ended several years ago. This June I didn’t see any beavers. I saw at least two, sometimes three herons working the shallows of the abandoned ponds.

I am proud of my old eyes for zeroing in on that heron wading in a sea of grass.

In the video clip below, where I got those two stills, I first disturbed a heron in the Big Pond as I walked behind the remnants of the dam. Foraging must have been productive in the shallows because it circled the pond and perched atop a nearby tree. Then I walked down the south shore of the old Second Swamp Pond. I must say that framed by the grasses the heron's neck seemed to move in a strange gullet first manner.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

June 2013: Bothering the Birds on June 18

Every year enough baby birds hop and flutter by our house in the woods to keep us entertained but a couple times each June I like to go out looking for them, just a couple times because my walking around willy-nilly in the woods can disrupt ground nests and make the mother bird’s job of keeping track of her fledglings more difficult.

Indeed at my first stop where I sat on a rock facing the meadow and road on the edge of the woods, I was soon craning my camcorder every which way to try to find a blue jay filling the woods with its alarm call. Through out the year I get that greeting from blue jays when I walk through the woods, but in this case I was in the woods first. 

I had seen the blue jay fly across the field and road from the woods across the valley. Its call sounded different to me, more stressed and there was another blue jay calling. When I saw a blue jay it was looking everywhere in the woods except at me.

The blue jay flew off, after I focused on it for a second, and I heard a meeker noise, perhaps from a baby blue jay.

Then a towhee lit on a low branch just behind me. It repeated “towhee towhee” as well as its “wit wit a zeee zeee” call.

I got the impression that it was listening for a towhee fledgling. There was something feeble calling in the underbrush which didn’t quite sound like a baby towhee to me. Maybe that adult was just as confused, which sounds like a silly thing to say. But if adult birds do have precise understanding of what they hear, why do they look and often act so stressed? Maybe they also have difficulty deciphering all the noises coming from the under story in the woods.

Anyway, my hunch was right. I would not have a sleepy walk in the woods. Baby birds were out and about along with all the stress that entails. When I got to the top of the ridge where one of the bogs in a plateau shaded by hemlocks drains, a woodcock hen flew up from a patch of mud and darted to my left, and a woodcock fledgling fluttered up as best it could toward the lower branches of the hemlocks. 

I tried and failed to see where it landed, then went up to a dry open area a bit higher on the ridge and sat on a rock. I decided to hang my head so my ears would not be distracted by what I might think I was seeing in the woods. Once I heard some baby or mother’s call, then I would zero in on it with the binoculars.

Instead a bird flew directly over my head and, with the binoculars I searched the low branches where it might have landed. I was in luck, and saw a female rose breasted grosbeak which is brown and yellow. The male has the rose. I got the camcorder focused on it, but forgot to push the record button. That grosbeak didn't make a sound coming or going.

I walked along the open edge of the hemlock woods which was thick with junipers. I cleaved to what grassy areas there were under occasional maples and ash trees. I noticed that this wet spring has given us our best year of herb robert. Its delicate pink flowers reached high from vigorous fern like leaves themselves towering over rocks in shady areas.

Even small trees in the sun were dealing out a stunning hand of seeds.

I hardly ever notice the purple seeds of ash trees. But there were no birds in the clearings. Avian propagation craves dark shade. 

The songs of a wood thrush and a verio led me into the stand of hemlocks and just when I was zeroing in on a patch maples and oaks where they seemed to be singing, I heard birds sounding an alarm in the hemlock litter around where I was standing. A brown bird flew up and by me into a low branch and a loud “teacher teacher teacher” explained the scurrying on the ground. That oven bird flew back down on the ground and seemed to let me see it.

If it was trying to decoy me, it did a poor job, because I soon saw the fluffed up tailless fledgling on a low branch of a hemlock almost eye level with me.

It seemed oblivious to all the commotion around it.

Obviously my being there was not helping the oven birds, so I moved along to the inner valley of our land where there is the lush remains of a beaver pond, abandoned by a beaver family two years ago. Thanks to the frequent rains we’ve had this spring, there was a bit of water in the pond,

coated with duck weed and hosting both green and bull frogs whose calls seemed more sedate than the birds’ as if having their hatchlings confined to swimming in the water while they sun on logs and keep a nose out of the water was the only way to avoid the cares of raising ones young.

I found a spot to sit half way down the ridge, with a good view of some columbine blooms.

When I sat near the pond a month ago, I got a video of a song sparrow preening its feather and fluff after taking a bath in the remnants of the beaver pond. All the while a verio sang in a nearby tree. Today I first spotted a song sparrow hopping into the island grass in the pond and I hoped it would lead me to the sparrow’s nest. No such luck.

Then I was distracted as a small flock of cedar waxwings chased a blue jay away. When I used to watch beavers here in the early evening, I often saw cedar wax wings chasing flying insects over the pond. Now I strained to get a video of their attack on the blue jay, but the bigger bird kept dodging away from them by flying into the crowns of low trees.

The waxwings continued their snit, and I noticed three song sparrow hoping around the beaver lodge. They looked like young ones waiting to be fed. So just I got a video of a song sparrow accompanied by a verio’s song, now I got a video of song sparrow with the zee zee zee of the waxwings for the soundtrack.

The sparrows did look attentive to what was going on around them. They didn’t make a peep of their own short but elaborate song.

So I headed back to lunch puzzled. Obviously adult birds imprint their young with their song. But what do the young make of all the other songs they can’t help but hear. Is the whole scene, the whole symphony, being imprinted on them? What is the upshot of every species having their offspring at the same time? Alas, humans too often describe an area by charting out who gets eaten by who. Are the young birds learning harmonies?

Friday, July 12, 2013

June 2013: Turtles with a Plan

Of the four turtles we see in the St. Lawrence River near Lake Ontario, the map turtle is the rarest. Over the years I sometimes saw them in July. I say “them” because if I saw one stretched out on a log in South Bay, I was sure to see a few more if not several. Unlike the snapping, painted and Blanding’s turtles, map turtles only basked in the sun on rare days. This year we saw several on logs in the north cove of South Bay on June 9

I saw them in the south cove of South Bay on June 19

Then I saw them again on the same north cove logs on June 30

I would like to launch into a long discussion of why they are called map turtles but that requires closely examining their shells and so far they have been too shy for me to do that. Twice I’ve seen them on land, looking for a nesting site, I assume, and both times I didn’t have my camera. 

As you can see from the photos I have taken, this turtle has a hauteur that commands respect. Of course snapping turtles command respect because they are huge and everything about them is huge. Below is a relatively small snapping turtle digging a nest and laying eggs back on June 3.

A map turtle is much smaller but like the snapper shows what equipment it has underneath its shell, like that big back leg.

Its bulgeing neck looks classy too, along with the stripes.

Generally nothing exciting happens when you take a video of a turtle on a log. When you get too close and it plops back in the water, it gives no credit to the videographer or the turtle. I keep the camcorder running because sometimes stills taken from the video are better than stills shot with the camera.

On the 30th, I kept the camcorder running long enough to show how that big back leg works:

That turtle has a plan.

Monday, July 8, 2013

May 2013: KINGbird and KINGfisher humbled by COMMON grackle!

I’m a great fan of both kingbirds and kingfishers. The former flies over the ponds and bays I watch and nabs insects. It often rests on a perch at eye level with me, well, slightly higher, after all, it is a king.

But on May 26 I did get a photo of it lower to the pond.

Those who gave birds their scientific names did not mince matters, crowning the kingbird with the name Tyrannus tyrannus. Worse than a king, or better from its point of view, this bird is a tyrant.

So I watched it fly off its perch and catch insects, always failing to get an adequate video of it, but in the short clip below you can get a sense of its hauteur. The call you hear in the video is not made by the kingbird who is rather quiet as kings go.

That sideways glance strikes me as a kingly gesture and I often see the kingbird pose like that. Here is a photo I took in June as I was in a kayak and a kingbird reigned along a section of South Bay.

Back to the May video: as you can see, I was sitting in a perfect spot to get more and perhaps more dramatic video but my camcorder wasn’t ready when the king was deposed. A bird known in Latin as Quiscalus quiscula, further humbled with the everyday name of “common grackle” 

flew almost on top of the kingbird and drove it from its perch and any perch in the near vicinity. The kingbird departed silently. The common grackle, well, it grackled, from a high perch looking not so common.

And the common grackle was not finished. A kingfisher was also working the pond. Just as the kingbird rules the insects, the kingfisher holds sway over fish. I didn’t get a photo of the kingfisher working the pond that day but the over the years I have. Here is my best photo which I took on September 1, 2011:

Here is a video I took at a small pond at our land in 2002, that era of just adequate camcorders and editing software, that captures the noisy flight of the bird and its aggressive demeanor.

I am sure I have a video of a kingfisher diving into the Lost Swamp Pond but I haven’t found it yet. One was diving into the pond on May 26 but just too far away to get a good video. 

Then I saw the kingfisher fly off a tall tree angling lower over the pond. At the same time the common grackle that had bullied the kingbird flew at the kingfisher forcing it to dive unceremoniously into the pond. Really the kingfisher seemed to bounce of the water, or pivot, because it made a rapid retreat from the lording common grackle. It all happened too quickly to take a video of that.

Why did the grackle go to all that trouble?

Like the kingbird, the grackle feasts on the insects spawned by and attracted to the pond. But grackles generally pick them off logs or off they perch on logs and sticks floating or leaning low over the water and pick the bugs they can reach off the water.

They also fly into trees a pick the bugs off the leaves. They don’t flutter up and pick insects out of the air. 

The grackle doesn’t dive in the water so it should have no bone to pick with a kingfisher. There were other grackles around the pond. I saw them perched high on a dead tree. The same one kingfishers use but on lower branches.

I’ve never noticed birds competing for perches and there were plenty of dead trees in and around the pond and dead tree branches and pointed remnants of trunks around the pond. 

So maybe the grackle was showing off for the other grackles making it a tough day for kings in the Lost Swamp Pond.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

May 2013: Saying Goodbye to a Beaver

In late May 2011 I noticed a beaver cutting the willow saplings in a pond not larger than a typical backyard swimming pool and its surrounding patio.

Ten days later I saw the beaver, and it saw me.

I got into the habit of going down in the late afternoon and watching the beaver cut willows.

I had seen beavers in that small pond before, once there were two beavers there in the spring. The pond typically dries up in July but as late as June 21 I saw the beaver dragging a long willow sapling over to its burrow.

Then sometime in late June it moved down to a much larger pond down a wooded hill, leaving plenty of willows behind and those that it cut would soon grow back. On July 1 I saw it eating pond weed in its new, larger, and deep pond.

It also ate the roots of some of the many water lilies in the pond.

We had water lilies blooming there for years but not as many as in the summer of 2011. On July 12, I could tell by the muddy water that the beaver had eaten many water lilies, but there were plenty thriving in the pond.

Beavers had lived in the pond over the years, sometimes two at a time, though none had successfully bred, but I had never seen one of them eating the lily roots or lilies. All the beavers who came to the pond moved up from White Swamp, a huge wetland a quarter mile downstream, where there are  acres of water lilies. 

For years I thought beavers came up to the pond on our land to get at more saplings and trees, but not this new beaver. Mostly it just ate the water lilies.

As the close up photos and videos I got suggest that beaver and I became pretty tight, especially when I sat in a lawn chair I always kept next to the dam. From that angle I got my Facebook photo.

This month, May 2013, a year and a half later, I got a photo of the beaver yawning.

The good times were gone; so were the water lilies.

In the spring of 2012 another beaver moved into the pond and it didn’t gorge on lily roots. It cut some maple saplings and honeysuckle. I was away much of the winter but by report knew the beavers stayed in the pond. When the snow melted I found ironwoods, ash trees, and nannyberries that had been cut by the beavers for winter chow. There was a long log near one of their burrows that had been completely stripped.

But my beaver friend had seemed to have no talent for cutting any but the smallest stalk, let alone a tree. At the end of March enough of the ice on the pond melted so that I could once again see my old friend. Before the grass grows, beavers usually cut trees. The beavers that I watch in the East Trail Pond on Wellesley Island were not at all shy about doing that.

On March 30 I saw something I never saw before. The beaver dug into its dam where it found a root that evidently had been pushed up with mud to make the dam higher in the fall.

Then the beaver disappeared for 6 weeks. I had one worry. Trapping season had not ended and some kid had traps along the creek down to White Swamp.

I think I happened by on the morning when the beaver returned. It swam sprightly and I noticed that it again dived in the shallows of the pond where I often saw it find lily roots. It climbed on shore, did some grooming

and then waded into the fresh green grass, I assumed for a meal. Seeing that it made itself at home again, the next week I walked around the pond every day to see what it might be eating. I saw a few nibbled honeysuckle branches and even a few scent mounds, but no stripped logs that proved to me that the beaver had a square meal.

Then came that yawning day. It was very disconcerting to me. I saw the beaver hunched on the shore near a bank lodge, under a thick wall of honeysuckles. But it wasn’t grooming like the jolly beaver I saw in 2011. It was on a tilt, looked like it could hardly hold itself up.

Then two chatty girls walked down the road near us, a rare occurrence. The beaver dove into the water, came up without anything to eat, nosed the nearby honeysuckle leaves hanging over the pond, but evidently had no taste for that and then climbed back up on shore. I left it just as I had found a half hour before, moping.

I came back after my dinner saw the beaver swimming toward me. I think it had just moved off the shore where I saw it in the afternoon because its fur seemed dry which means it was having a bad hair moment. It came swimming toward and paused just below me, and then turned and swam back to where it had been.

But it didn't climb back up on shore. It began trying to collect the pollen on the surface of the pond, an easy but meager meal I have seen beavers resort to in the spring.

I got the impression that the beaver was begging. Once every summer we cut some aspen saplings when they begin to shade our garden, and if there is a beaver in the pond nearby we offer the saplings to them. Over the years some beavers have almost eaten them out of our hands,

But this beaver was usually shy of eating even what supposedly is a beaver's favorite bark.  I hurried up to the garden, broke of some leafy aspen saplings and hurried down to the beaver. It seemed to perk up, but didn't swim right over.

I left it and the next morning was pleased to see the aspen taken away. I brought down some more, but it floated untouched for many days. As I write this now, July 5, I've seen no signs of the beaver that liked me and liked our pond, but liked lily roots down in the huge swamp more. Though they spread by roots, water lilies can grow by seeds. The famous beavers in the book Lily Pond ate all the lilies there and had to move away, but the lilies began growing again it two years. So maybe it is au revoir and not goodbye.