Friday, September 29, 2006

A Hundred Common Yellowthroats

Walking at dusk tonight, down the lane to the lake (Lake Ontario) below the house where I sometimes stay in Prince Edward County, I ran into a flock of calling warblers. There was just enough light and co-operation to get a look at a Yellow-rumped Warbler, and then I knew the calls (which I've heard many times before). A little further on, light fading fast now, I ran into another flock, many more birds, different, louder call. The call of the Common Yellowthroat is one I know pretty well--but I don't know very many warbler calls, so don't know how many there are that are similar. I got a look at one bird, a pretty dim look, and I'm pretty sure Common Yellowthroat. But I've never seen/heard this bird in numbers like this. It was deafening.

Meantime robins were gathering and calling, blue jays were kicking up a fuss, and then three calling Great Blue Herons flew overhead. Finally a catbird joined in. There were at least two other species in the mix: something with a high thin call, and something else.

This place, Prince Edward County, is incredible for birds. I've written about it many times before, for example my stay down here during spring migration that I wrote about here, or my first red-bellied woodpecker, here.

All those birds, and an interesting mushroom too.

Earlier today I watched thirteen Turkey Vultures (at least I stopped counting at thirteen) drift high overhead. Last night I stepped out to hear a Great Horned Owl softly hooting, then a coyote's single howl off in the distance, repeated a couple of times, until it was answered by another quite close by. For the last couple of days the trees around the house have been full of Eastern Phoebes and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. Yesterday I saw my first Winter Wren. Tomorrow, who knows?

Thursday, September 28, 2006

I and the Bird #33

Travel the world with Texas journalist, tax expert and birder Kay Bell of Don't Mess with Taxes, host of the 33rd edition of I and the Bird, the carnival of the best of recent bird and birder blogging. Head on over!

I and the Bird #34 will be hosted by Pam at Tortoise Trail, October 12. Click here to learn more about the carnival.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Fall Birding on a Windy Sunday Afternoon

After a rainy Saturday, Sunday came bright and windy. Windy, especially after the leaves start to fall is about the least favourable condition for checking out birds. It's hard to see them among all the other movement, and very hard to hear them, or locate sounds that you do hear.

Nevertheless, since I could feel the migrating birds all around me, I headed out to see what I could see. Across the street from the house there was a flicker, as there has been almost every day lately, at the top of a dead tree. Blue jays were calling, and crows were cawing in the hamlet. Interesting about the crows, once the breeding is over they seem to move off somewhere, then either they return, or another family-or-two-sized murder of crows moves in. Lately they've been scarce, until this past weekend.

Virginia Tiger Moth Caterpillar, I believe.

Once I got out into the scrape I found this caterpillar. I've been seeing lots of these in the past few weeks. This one is on viper's bugloss, just like the one that was the subject of a post from this time last year, Tiger Moth Caterpillar?

The scrape was not scraped for topsoil this year (the activity for which I've named the area), nor was the pile created last year taken, and the crop of various colonizers is fantastic, providing lots of seeds for the taking. The main takers are sparrows and Mourning Doves. Mourning Doves flush so noisily and distinctively there's no problem knowing them. Not so with the sparrows. Over the past few weeks, when I can catch a glimpse, I've seen flocks of Chipping Sparrows, Vesper Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and on this occasion Field Sparrows. But often I can't identify them, as I walk they fly up from the weeds fast and fly quickly to a better spot down into the weeds again. There are a couple of small trees, but even when they take shelter (from me) in them I can't always get a fix on them.

Carrying on, without much hope of finding much more, I entered the far field and wandered up to the old apple tree. Surrounded by a thicket of prickly ash and other shrubbery, this is a good location for warblers, sparrows, and many others. Nobody was there, but I did find a couple of beautiful mushrooms.

After a very dry end to summer, dry enough to curl the leaves of lots of trees and send them into an early fall, we've had a pretty wet few weeks. Everything not set too far back is green again, and there are mushrooms everywhere.

The wind was blowing pretty hard and I remembered all the living poplars I've seen snapped in two by wind (while long-dead elms stay standing) as I walked past stands of them. Once again nothing big came down while I was out there. A single Turkey Vulture flew overhead, going south, more or less. The flyway over Thomasburg in the fall for most flocks usually goes from the northeast to southwest, sometimes almost east to west. More flickers were calling around the edges of the far field. I headed south along the far edge and finally found the kind of commotion I was looking for. More Field Sparrows, some possible others, and an Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus). It was the exact spot where I've seen a fall towhee in previous years. It's not where the breeding pair hang out, though not far away. The spot looks like the shrubby edge habitat the runs along the edge of the far field--but if you wanted to see a towhee in September that's where I'd send you. Must be something particularly lovely about it that I just can't see.

Making my way back, taking note of the leopard frog and the lovely giant dragonflies (none of which would settle for me to take a look--I was amazed that they could fly at all in that wind), I crossed the south end of the scrape again, and flushed something out of the weeds growing on a topsoil pile. Sparrow, I assumed, and raised the glasses to see if I could see which one.

Not a sparrow. Not a sparrow at all. I managed to get a few good looks as the bird balanced on a stalk, then flew into a nearby tree. A vireo! What the heck was a vireo doing out here, in the open, in the grasses and weeds? And which one was it? Some yellow underneath, no fancy eye ring. There was a pale eyebrow though, more distinct than the warbling vireo's. After I got back to the house I studied the vireos and decided that this was probably a Philadelphia Vireo ( Vireo philadelphicus).

Another bird, like the Scarlet Tanager of last week, completely out of its normal habitat. These are the strange pleasures of fall migration birding.

"You know when the moon’s blue it's a circus."

Circus of the Spineless, through the night, through the artists (Peter and Craig) and patrons of Spineless Tattoo, at Deep-Sea News. A little taste of the action:
Peter: Why the visit?
Tough Guy: Caterpillar
Peter: Caterpillar?
Tough Guy: Caterpillar tattoo
Peter: I got that much
Tough Guy: I was thinking something intimidating like a Hickory Horned Devil (courtesy of Fragments of Floyd) or Hornworm, maybe a black one (courtesy of Thomasburg Walks)
Peter: Tough Caterpillars?
Tough Guy: Dames like’m.
And this exchange:
Dame to Craig: Is that an earthworm your working on?
Craig: Yep
Dame: Why?
Craig: You can’t underestimate the impact of the earthworm (courtesy of Bootstrap Analysis)
And so much more--the best of recent invertebrate blogging. Check it out!

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Night falls fast

This time of year a walk at dusk has to be quick and timely. It takes me a while to get used to the change from the long evenings of summer, so tonight, as often happens, I was late getting out, and after a comparatively brisk walk around the fields (half an hour instead of the usual hour-and-a-half), came home in the dark.

The fields were full of birds I couldn't see, making calls that, for the most part, I couldn't identify. Yes, there were robins, and sparrows of some kind, but were those other "chuckers" cardinals, and what about those other, more mysterious calls? I let it go for the pleasure it is to be out there surrounded by sound in the misty gloom.

I flushed a cottontail as I walked--reminding me of just how little I can see at dusk. It was apparently sitting in the open when it made its dash. I was quite close and could see that white puff of tail bounding away, but if it had sat tight, I would never have seen it. I wouldn't be able to see a coyote in that light either, as I learned a few years ago. A neighbourhood dog whose home backs onto the fields used to be "at large" sometimes, and when it was it felt responsible for the whole area. If the dog was loose and I came out to walk it would follow me the whole time, at a distance, barking. I call the dog Berkeley, after the Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753), whose metaphysics is based on the precept, "esse est percipi," i.e., to be is to be perceived.

Berkeley is a German shepherd (or Alsatian) cross, so has the same basic colouring as the local coyotes. One fall evening Berkeley was out keeping pace with me, barking so that I could be certain of my existence, when he/she disappeared. There was still enough light that I could walk comfortably, and see my destination easily. But I could no longer see one loud brown dog against the earth and dead grasses just 15 metres or so away. Kinda spooky.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Season of the Unexpected

Even more than spring migration, fall migration is a real test of birding skill. I need more of it--skill that is, not fall migration.

Yesterday I stepped outside to see a flock of seven to ten birds (maybe more) flitting about in the lilac and Manitoba maple just off the corner of the house. Yellowish, dark wings, pale beaks, not too small. Orioles? They'd have to be Orchard Orioles, which would be interesting, since we are just beyond the normal range of the Orchard, though they're moving into our area. But not only are the beaks pale, but they're a bit too heavy for an oriole.

I took a few pictures, which didn't show much (got to get a better camera ...). I got the best looks I could, but they were moving fast in and out of the foliage. Gleaning? A little flycatching? I came in and consulted the books (mainly Sibley's). My guesses didn't seem to be quite right. I decided to sleep on it.

This morning I went back to the sometimes-successful method of flipping through the book. Identification is so much easier when you already know generally what kind of bird you are looking at: finch, oriole, vireo, even warbler, narrows the question down nicely. It doesn't always lead to an answer, think flycatcher, sparrow, for example, but it gives you a basis for inquiry. Without that, you're left with the flip method. It sometimes fails--gives one an odd feeling when it does: when one looks at every bird in the guide and doesn't see the bird that just passed through the yard. But it happens a lot.

In spring birds arrive in their breeding plumage, and are often singing territorial songs long before they get to their breeding grounds. It's always tough to identify birds out of context, but the plumage and songs make it much easier. In the fall, most birds are in winter plumage and singing is sporadic and often off key (though I did hear a pretty vireo song this morning).

So, there I was flipping. Considering perusing the finches (though it wasn't any finch I knew), when I stumbled into the tanagers. And there it was: Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea). scarlet tanagerThe male in breeding plumage is unmistakable in his brilliant scarletness. But this is a bird I've only seen a few times (for example, May 2006, Prince Edward County--at right).

The Scarlet Tanager lives in mature deciduous forest, a kind of habitat I visit sometimes, but not one I enjoy every day. In other words, this is not a bird I know the giss of, and certainly not a bird I expect to find feeding in the yard.

A little later on I was back out in the yard. The tanagers were gone, and among the chickadees now feeding in the same Manitoba maple there was a Yellow-rumped Warbler. Now that's a fall migrant I expect to see!

Monday, September 18, 2006

A Hornworm of Another Colour

In August of 2003 I discovered this critter and some friends on garden tomato plants. I grabbed this photo but was unable to find out what this was until this past weekend. I posted the photo on and within the hour I had the answer. It looks so much like a tomato hornworm because it is.

A later blog search turned up a post at Pharyngula from last February that mentions this phenomenon: Evolution of a Polyphenism. Apparently the colour variation is a result of temperature during the early stages of development--not sure if it's during the egg stage or what. Anyway, cooler temperatures result in this black form; warmer, green. I checked the weather records for the summer of 2003 and found that while it was a fairly moderate summer (as compared with, say, 2005), and there were some cool nights in July (10C), nothing jumped out as a protracted chilly spell.

Tomato Hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata), dark morph.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

A Caterpillar Tale

Late in the spring I noticed that a couple of tomato plants had volunteered in a small waste pile in the yard. The yard is somewhat managed around the house, but not exactly manicured--so sometimes a small pile of straw, for example, rather than getting spread on the garden bed it was intended for ends up staying put for a year or so, and attracting other stuff. This small pile must have attracted last year's potting soil from a planter, one that had been seeded by nearby tomatoes (I think, cherry tomatoes of some variety from hanging baskets, but likely crossed with garden tomatoes). The result, volunteer tomato plants!

Tomato sprawl

Tomatoes are great self-seeders, but in this zone, five, they almost never have enough time to produce fruit. Garden tomatoes are started inside. These particular plants did set some fruit, and early enough for it to ripen on one of them--but they were plagued by ferocious blossom-end rot: worse than I've ever seen on tomatoes we've planted. This is caused by inadequate uptake of calcium by the plant, a result of root damage, drying out too much between waterings, or an excess of one of a number of elements in the soil--any one of which could have been a factor for these unwatered plants growing in the weird mixture of rotting straw, potting soil, and some wood ash that makes up this particular waste pile.

So, these were not precious, well-nurtured plants producing food for the table. Instead, they were an opportunity. A place for tomato hornworms (Manduca quinquemaculata)! I made a plan. All summer I watched the tomatoes in the garden, and finally, on August 21, I found the stripped stems characteristic of the work of this caterpillar. A few moments search and I found the critter, quite small, about three centimetres. I plucked it off the plant (much easier to move than an almost full-size cecropia caterpillar!), and delivered it to the volunteers.

The black horn distinguishes the tomato hornworm from the tobacco hornworm.

The caterpillar settled in right away and resumed eating. I checked on it daily; it was always surprisingly difficult to spot, given its size. It spent a lot of time clinging to the underside of a stem while nibbling, always nibbling the leaves. In a few days it had developed the stripes characteristic of later stages or instars of this caterpillar.

At last sighting, August 29, the caterpillar was eight centimetres long, and nice and fat. I went away for a couple of days and when I returned the caterpillar was gone. If all went well it left the plant and pupated in the leaf litter to wait until spring when it will emerge as a five-spotted hawkmoth.

Last seen

Friday, September 15, 2006

Friday Spider Blogging

A sure sign of fall's approach: the blooming of the asters.

The little speck turned out to be a spider. Too bad I didn't take note of it--might have had a better picture.

The Friday Ark #104: All aboard!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

What's the name?

Looking over the search terms that have brought recent visitors to Thomasburg Walks I noticed that someone had come on a search from Australia for "parts of the teddy bear bee." My post "Teddy-bear Bee" popped up, but I wondered why someone would have chosen to search for the spur-of-the-moment nickname I gave to what I learned was a leaf-cutter bee (Megachile).

Turns out that there are bees commonly called "teddy bear bees," bees of the genus Amegilla. The link will take you to a picture of one. This link will take you to an Australian leaf-cutter bee of the same genus as my bee. Check it out and I'm sure you'll agree that my Megachile is much more like a teddy bear (pinchy mouth parts aside) than either of these Australian bees.

Appropriateness aside, this unintentional misappropriation of a name can serve as a reminder of the ambiguities inherent in the use of common names. There is a trend to standardize the common English names of birds so that they can be used as proper names. This has been done for North American birds by the AOU Checklist. And is now being attempted by the International Ornithological Conference for the English names of birds everywhere. (Read about this and all that it entails at Birds Etcetera.) What a lot of work! Work that is already done by the scientific (Latin) names, and done for English and non-English alike. Why do it all over again?

I and the Bird #32: The Passionate Birder

I and the Bird #32, the blog carnival of the best of recent bird and birder blogging is up at the always lovely Sand Creek Almanac. Deb has put together an excellent collection of posts, reflecting the various forms that birders' passions take. Check it out!

There's been birding in Thomasburg. I've been enjoying, and being frustrated by, the small flocks of migrants passing through. And watching with interest the birds that appear to still be on their breeding grounds. But my bird blogging muse has apparently deserted me again. Too bad, I would have been thrilled to be part of the collection that is I and the Bird #32. Maybe next time. Meantime, is this a Cooper's Hawk?

Friday, September 08, 2006

Friday Bee Blogging

Ever since the sedum first started to show the slightest bit of bloom they've been covered by these small bees.

Friday Ark #103

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

American Dagger Moth Caterpillar

At least that's what I think this is (aka Acronicta americana). Found this pretty, fuzzy yellow caterpillar on a leaf of a shrub in the garden (a purple-leaf sand cherry: Prunus cistena) back on August 24. It didn't seem to be dead, but neither did it seem very lively, not moving, not reacting much to a gentle prod.

Next day, it was still there, in the same spot, apparently not having moved at all.

Day after that, August 26, this is what I found:

Off with the old!

What you see in the picture is the caterpillar above and its castoff exoskeleton rolled up below. I knew that caterpillars shed their skins a few times before they were ready to move on to the next stage, but somehow didn't picture fuzzy ones such as this shedding them whole, like peeling off a fur coat to reveal another underneath.

The day after the last shot the caterpillar was gone--then later I saw a quite lively dagger moth caterpillar motoring across the front porch and into the front garden, a cat with purpose! Cindy of Woodsong has a good picture of the moth this one will be turning into here.

Friday, September 01, 2006

More Carnivalia

What a week this is! A carnival, a circus, and now a festival: Festival of the Trees #3 is up at Bev's Burning Silo.

Festival of the Trees is a blog carnival of posts that celebrate trees in all their aspects. This month's edition is another great collection of posts from all over the world. Check it out!

And watch for Festival of the Trees #4, October 1, at Woodsong.