Archive for the 'Description' Category

More Signs of Spring

Friday, April 7th, 2017

More signs of Spring. This morning a Hermit Thrush visited the backyard. One usually stops by at the end of the first week of April most years. It flicked its tail and turned over many leaves while it hopped about.

That prompted a visit to edge of the yard near the back fence to see if the Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) was peeking through last year’s fallen leaves. There was one bud poking out having escaped its wrapping leaf. This afternoon it (above) had opened. When the tree  leaves were removed around the first blossom, a second (below) was found along with another bud. Several more buds were found several feet away.

Bloodroot blossoms are very fragile. Even light wind can make the petals to shatter and fall within two days of opening. The plant has a reddish sap (especially in the roots), hence its common name. It was used in dyes and native medicine. The roots are poisonous as are many parts of plants in the poppy family.

We found some Spring Beauty several days ago. The Trout Lily leaves are growing. Soon the Spring ephemerals will be in their full glory.



Saturday, November 19th, 2016

On Thursday we drove to several overlooks along the Upper Mississippi NWR to look for Tundra Swans that we thought might be already in their stopover ahead of the winter weather coming this way. There were Tundras way out on the river between the islands – thousands of them – but none close enough to shore for photography. There were also several flocks of American White Pelicans that we could see with our binoculars.

The families that were in reach of our long lenses were Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator). Their common name is a reflection of their scientific name. Cygnus is swan and buccinare is to trumpet. Nest success must have been good this year because we saw family groups with two to four juveniles. Trumpeter Swans lay four to six eggs which they incubate by covering the eggs with their feet.

Trumpeters have made a comeback after near extinction in the last century. Conservation efforts are still important to their continued recovery. Several innovative projects in the Upper Midwest have contributed to this success.

After being startled by someone getting too close to the shore, the birds gradually came back within range of our lenses. These two youngsters felt secure enough to stay still while observing us. The bird close to the camera has relaxed its leg to let it float on the surface. They will grow into the largest waterfowl species in North America with wingspreads up to 8 feet (over 2 meters) and weighing up to 26 pounds (12 kgs).

The sun was setting so we our visit was short. The next time we see swans there will probably be snow on the ground.

Wasp Nest Paper

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

Several weeks ago we were given two fragile layers from a paper wasp nest. They were and are very beautiful, though they seemed ready to fall apart. The layers were placed on blotter paper, covered with more sheets and were put in a small old fashioned book press that we use to press paper, flowers, leaves and bark. There were several wrinkles in the sheets. Pressed flat and slightly stabilized made it possible to photograph them without shattering.

Paper wasps are members of the Polistes subfamily of wasps. There are 22 species in North America. These wasps use tiny bits of wood and plant materials mixed with their mouth secretions (saliva) to construct their nests. Sometimes they really do use real paper that they scavenge.

The nest begins with making a stem (petiole) to which they add a brood cell and subsequent six-sided cells around it in a single layer. They cover the brood cells with many waterproof layers of ‘paper’ similar to very thin sheets of papier-mâché. Some describe the shape as an upside down umbrella with a very short handle. The large egg-shaped structures may be found in trees or under the eaves of buildings.

We wonder what these wasps used to make this paper. The color variation is unusual as most we have seen were more uniformly gray or brownish. Most of the stripes are gray; probably from old wood. The tan, brown and cream colored areas must be various plant fibers. The darkest inserts are a puzzle.

While as abstract images they can be placed vertically or horizontally, we preferred this orientation. The top image flows from top to bottom, while the bottom image seems to lead into the image from lower left to upper right. Even though there are no figures or objects to lead the eye, the brain seems to have a need to make order and often does.

Sand Lily

Monday, September 26th, 2016

Sand Lilies (Mentzelia nuda) have been growing on a sandy location in the county for many years. They are a western native flower that must have been accidently introduced this far east.  Other common names are Bractless Mentzelia, Upright Mentzelia, Bractless Blazingstar and Bractless Stickleaf.

We used to think they were Ten-petal Mentzelia (Mentzelia decapetala) because they were identified as such in widely used book of Midwestern prairie flowers. One of the differences is that Sand Lily petals do not overlap and Ten-petal Mentzelia petals touch or overlap. Both the Sand Lily petals and stamens are white or pale cream, while the Ten-petal Mentzelia’s stamens are yellow and the blossoms wider across – up to 6 inches (15 cm). Their leaves differ also. These are just two of the many Mentzelia species found in arid areas of the Americas.

Good sites to see the differences between these two are on the following links. Ten-petal Mentzelia is found here at Montana Plant Life. And information on Sand Lily is here at Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses. There is another unrelated white flower whose common name is Sand Lily found in the Pacific Northwest.

We were late going to visit the sand patch this year. Most of the blossoms had gone to seed. There still were some buds so a few images were made as this one opened late one recent afternoon. This one was especially pretty.

Good Fortune on Ile Bonaventure

Sunday, July 10th, 2016

The main purpose of our photo trip last month was to visit Bonaventure Island (Ile Bonaventure), an Important Bird Area that is also a Canadian National Park. Bonaventure has its origins in the Latin bonaventura meaning good fortune. The good fortune that early colonists encountered was a fine cod fishery. Our good fortune was to spend a day around and on the island at the tip of Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula.

There are well over 50,000 Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) nests on the island along with large colonies of Common Murres and Razorbills. It is the second largest Northern Gannet nesting colony in the world. There is one on an island off the coast of Scotland that is a bit larger.

Gannets are special birds in many ways. Their nostrils are inside their mouths. This allows them to be deep divers when they are foraging for fish. Their bluish eyes point forward for accurate aim. The one above is considering a dive.

Like many sea birds they have to work to get air borne. This one pushed off with five jumps along the surface before it was flying free of earth’s bounds. Youngsters, when they fledge, may stay on the water for up to two weeks before they can fly.

Even with their wingspans of up to 6 feet (almost 2 meters), they may fly close to one another. At times the air was full of birds even though the checkerboard of nests on the cliff and down its side on ledges always seemed full.

Males were still gathering nest materials and stealing from other nests to take their offerings their mates on their nests, often with an egg under them. Sometimes the females would reject the grass, sticks, feathers, pebbles and seaweeds that were offered.

While there were many arguments between neighboring nests, this female was not bothered by any other birds. She had the most substantial nest that we saw and did not bother to look at any other birds or us. She did keep an eye on the ground around her nest for anything dropped by a bird flying overhead. We saw her add some pebbles and the large sticks that were dropped. She had chosen a place with some larger rocks and her mate must have supplied her with the thick bed of grasses.

We saw several females stretch and flap their wings briefly and saw their single eggs. These stretches happened so fast and were hard to anticipate so we only made a few images.

Bonaventure Island is a very special place and should be on birders’ and bird photographers’ list of places to visit, even for a day. The wonder of it is amazing.

Next Stop – Piping Plovers

Friday, July 8th, 2016


When we found Darlington Provincial Park, northeast of Toronto along Lake Ontario, we learned that two pair of Piping Plovers were nesting along the lake. One pair was in a remote part of the park while one pair was near the campground. They were protected by a large wire cage and a much larger roped perimeter.

After reconnoitering the evening we arrived, we were out at first light to see the plover nest. The female was on the nest in the wire pen. By using a shallow depth of field and from a long distance, the wires are barely visible. Bob used a 2x tele-converter with his 500mm lens, something he rarely does. It can decrease image quality but with the protective perimeter, he decided it was worth a try.

The female was still drowsy and often closed her eyes while waiting to be relieved by the male. When he arrived, she quickly left and he settled on the nest. Both of them sat facing the lake with the early morning light touching their left sides.

As the male settled on the eggs, he shuffled his wings and fluffed his body feathers. His collar is wider and complete and the brow band is also wider. Her collar is not complete and her brow band narrower.

The female dashed down the beach and was picking insects and other small invertebrates at the water’s edge. She certainly seemed hungry and turned back and forth while she foraged. When she turned and moved away down the stony beach she finally disappeared into her camouflage.

The staff at the park are so pleased that two pair of the endangered Great Lakes population of Piping Plovers are nesting along their portion of Lake Ontario. The Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Effort reported that there were 71 nests around the Great Lakes at the end of June this year. It is the third year in a row that there have been at least 70 nests. We are so pleased to have seen one of these pairs.

Nest Progress

Saturday, May 28th, 2016

We visited the Althea R. Sherman Chimney Swifts’ Tower twice this week- on Tuesday and today. The nest is progressing and seems much sturdier than the previous two nests.

On Tuesday the nest was starting to have three dimensions and was protruding out from the false chimney wall a little bit.

Many more twigs were added in the intervening days and today it is more cup shaped.  The middle of the nest is quite thick and has many short twigs at the bottom of the cup.

To show center of the nest, we photographed through the small slanting window on the east wall.  The short sticks are stacked and glued in place. Though we wipe the glass, dust settles quickly. Glass can distort images slightly so, like many photographers, we do not use protective filters on our lenses. The exception is by the ocean with salt mist blowing toward us.

Working through the little window means that selective focus must be used. At this range even a smallish aperture does not have a deep depth of field. The part of the wall closest to the window and the wall beyond the nest are not as sharp as the nest. A 24-105mm lens was used to get the whole nest into the image. Using the 90mm lens at the window makes for a very tight crop.  Our sharpest and clearest images are made through the peek holes on the south wall with a 90mm tilt-shift lens. No glass interferes through the holes.

The nest appears to be about 1/3 done. When it gets to 2/3 complete, the Chimney Swift hen will probably start to lay. Like everyone connected with the tower, we are eager for that to begin.


Friday, February 26th, 2016

Chickadees and Titmice are in the family Paridae and are among the most inquisitive and cheerful appearing small birds. We enjoy photographing the Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillia) in our backyard. The one above we encountered last weekend while in search of Boreal Chickadees (Poecile hudsonica) in northeastern Minnesota.  There are 7 chickadee species  and 4 titmice species in North America. Black-capped Chickadees have the largest range through the upper half of the United States and up into Canada.

Boreal Chickadees are found mostly in Canada and Alaska while dipping down into the lower 48 states, especially in winter. These two species are of similar size and behaviors and are sometimes found together as we found these birds coming to feeding stations.

The Boreal Chickadees were really enjoying the peanut butter which had been slathered on stout branches. We could hear their more buzzy, slurred chick-a-dee call in the woods before they came in. The Black-capped Chickadee’s call is crisper and clearer. The Black-capped birds seem to prefer sunflower seeds and were seldom at the peanut butter. The little Red Squirrels also liked peanut butter. We saw one Red Squirrel pick up a chunk of peanut butter and try to carry it on its front legs while walking on just its back legs.

The lower Boreal Chickadee’s coloring was more vibrant and contrasty than the one above. Some writers describe Chickadees as fluffy brown and gray birds with a few markings. They live in cold climates and fluffiness is a necessary attribute. We think the colors are quite lovely. Of course, these branches were far enough from the background woods so that the birds stand out rather than blend in with their surroundings.

Last winter we only saw one Boreal Chickadee late in the day at the Saz-Zim Bog and hoped for better luck this trip. This year we were pleased to see them at several locations.

Monarch Watch

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

Last evening we went to a presentation by Dr. Orley R. “Chip” Taylor. The large meeting room was full of people with an interest is all pollinators but especially Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterflies.

Dr. Taylor co-founded Monarch Watch in 1992. Among the first group of people that responded to the press release seeking volunteers were about 500 from Des Moines, Iowa. Over the years more butterflies have been tagged in Iowa than any other state. Later research showed that Iowa was the largest breeding ground for butterflies roosting in the Oyamel fir forests in southern Mexico before milkweed was eradicated from agricultural fields and along roadways. Dr. Taylor is soliciting everyone’s help to increase milkweed production so that the wintering population in Mexico will rise again.

We visited the small preserves with another Monarch researcher in 2010. Dr. William “Bill” Calvert was among the first scientists to locate the wintering grounds high in the mountains between Morelia and Mexico City. The Oyamel (Abies religiosa) or sacred fir trees are where most of the Monarchs roost from November to early March before making the several generation flights to the Upper Midwest and points east.

The Oyamel is not only essential to the only insect known to migrate long distances annually to a particular location and habitat, but is also important to the local population. The boughs are used in religious celebrations, hence its second part of its name -religiosa.

We saw trees encased in butterflies and the ground littered with those puddling for moisture and minerals and sometimes those that had not survived the long winter. We were there in early March as the butterflies were getting ready to head north to Texas and Oklahoma to parent the next generation. We saw mating and even an egg on a Tropical Milkweed leaf.

These were probing the soil for much needed water. Dr. Taylor discussed the narrow balance between enough moisture so that the butterflies could utilize their stored fat reserves to survive the 4 to 5 months in Mexico and the danger of heavy rains followed by freezing temperatures that sometimes occur in these 10-11,000 foot mountains.

Here a group was clinging to stems at a seep or little spring. Many looked like their fat stores were much reduced from the plump adults we see here in the Midwest during July and August.

In thinking about ways that Iowans could demonstrate their commitment to the preservation of Monarch butterflies and all pollinators besides planting native forbs, we learned that Iowa is one of only 5 states that does not have a state insect symbol.

In 29 states there is a state butterfly and sometimes there is a state insect and a state butterfly. The Monarch is the state insect or butterfly for these states: Texas, Alabama, West Virginia, Illinois, Minnesota, Vermont, Idaho. Idaho’s Monarchs most likely are from the West Coast population that winters along the California coast. Though several states are not large caterpillar nurseries, they felt it was important to honor this iconic and important representative of the biodiversity that supports us all.

Perhaps Iowa should do the same.

Frequent Visitors

Thursday, December 10th, 2015

A pair of Northern Cardinals are frequent visitors to the hanging tray feeder that we enjoy out one of the kitchen windows.

We refer to the male above as our blue cardinal. His feathers are edged in blue by our camera sensors when the garage shades the tray feeder. Bird information states that some male cardinals’ back and tail feathers may appear gray on their edges. The reasons are not known. We think of the color as a lovely Williamsburg blue.

Here he is seen cracking a sunflower seed while checking on the long lens poking through a curtain at the open window because a clicking sound also emanates from behind the curtain. Since nothing has come out the window he usually continues his meal.

The female that appears to be his mate is an imposing lady.

She is anything but drab. Her crest is often raised and her beak is a very bright red-orange. Rather than being the dull brown often described, her chest is a soft russet and her black mask contrasts with her beak almost as much as a male’s.

She usually faces the window and lens while the male turns his back or sits behind the ropes that hold the corners of the tray.

Since we hung the tray, this pair comes more often than they did when feeding on the ground. There is a very dark Dark-eyed Junco male that sometimes uses the tray rather than eating from the ground in typical junco fashion. A Red-bellied Woodpecker and a female Northern Flicker also seem to prefer it to other feeders.

It also brings more species up to camera-eye level. Now we need to encourage them to land on more interesting perches near-by before coming to the feeder.