Monday, August 14, 2017

The Birds of Late Summer

By Beth Sullivan
This spring was lush. Vegetation grew overtime as if trying to make up for the lost time of the drought last year. This abundance supported an excess of flowers, fruits and seeds, as well as an excess of insects that appreciated all the growth. A great year to be a bird!
The early birds got not only the worms, but all the best nesting sites. Those species that nested first were those resident birds who had their territories all staked out before the migrants arrived. Our Cardinals, Chickadees, Titmice, Woodpeckers, and Wrens nested first and raised their young on the abundance of insects of early summer. But they also got off to a quick start because they were able to enjoy the seeds of late winter, and seeds at our feeders. Many of these species had second broods, and may occasionally try a third.
The busy House Wren filled several boxes with twigs and chose this as her first of three nests this summer

The resident Cardinal started early and raised two families under the kitchen window.

Migrants move in

The migrants came next to find their niche: the tree top Warblers, Tanagers, Orioles, and Hummingbirds to name a few. These are not seed eaters; they rely on the plants to offer nectar in flowers and small insects in the foliage. They will not begin to nest until there is adequate food to support their nestlings. Each year we await the arrival of the Hummingbirds and Orioles which seem to be timed with the blossoming of my Quince bush. It’s a great nectar source for both birds. Of course we can’t resist offering the feeders with sugar water to bring them in close. Somehow the Orioles seem to vanish into the fields and shrub edges, but the Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds have now fledged their two youngsters and the populations at our feeders and flower gardens have truly exploded. Hummingbird antics are great to watch and even ferocious at times. I can’t help imagining what these displays might be like if these little dynamos were as big as Robins.
The Orioles do not appear until there are flowering fruit trees. Photo by Dennis Main.

This young Hummingbird is learning her way around the feeder and the bees.

The young birds of prey are out now and are probably the noisiest. Osprey, Broad-winged and other hawks all have young fledged now. While they may be able to fly, they sure haven’t mastered the art of feeding themselves, so they call for parents who can deliver the fish and small mammal prey that also seem to be abundant this year.
This young Broad-Winged Hawk squeals all day, waiting to be fed.

Diets of seeds and berries

But it is the birds of later summer that often intrigue me: specifically the Goldfinches and the Cedar Waxwings. While these birds do eat insects, they wait until their truly favored foods are most abundant before starting a family. Both of these species do not begin nesting until August.
It is this month that the grasses have matured, holding their seed heads high and offering their fragile stems to the fluffs-of-gold Finches so they can pick the ripening seeds. They also rely on downy material for their nests. It is only now that many of the field flowers are offering up their seeds with the fluffy down parachutes that will help the seeds disperse. It’s a little early for most of the Milkweed pods to be opened, but some are. There are numerous field flowers related to wild lettuce and Hawkweeds that have white fluffy seeds held aloft. Thistles, even the invasive ones, are beginning to open up and with Goldfinches on top, can be so beautiful: bright yellow near the purple flowers, picking seeds and down. A Goldfinch nest is a masterwork of softness.
The Cedar Waxwings prefer berries. Only now are some of our local bushes bearing fruit: Viburnums, Virginia Creeper Vine, some Dogwoods and of course some of our own favored blueberries and raspberries can attract Cedar Waxwings if they can beat the Catbirds. They are nesting during August and will feed their young an abundance of fruits as the summer advances.
Goldfinches can be seen on late summer grasses, picking seeds.

The Cedar Waxwing appeared to be attacking this spider web, but was pulling fibers for its nest.

The Knox Preserve and Preston Nature Preserve are two places to find these later-nesting birds. The Waxwings will be whistling higher among the shrubs and cedars and the Goldfinches will be calling and perching in the grasses in the field.
Take some time to sit still, listen to the sounds of the later summer: Cicadas, Crickets, and all the birds. Think of the cycles of the seasons and how everything has its place. Somewhat of a miracle to me.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise noted.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Monarch of summer

By Beth Sullivan

Back in 2013 we wrote about the plight of the Monarch butterfly, and how the loss of habitat had brought on a decline in population.  Now, four years later we still have to worry  about Monarchs.

Those of us who were lucky enough to run freely through gardens and meadows during summer months, years ago, remember the Monarch Butterflies as the keystone of the season: ever present, drifting lazily on the breeze, never seeming to be in a hurry and always brightening our summers. They would begin to arrive in our area in June; dates always varied depending on weather conditions and southerly breezes. We could count on several generations of Monarchs in our area each year.

This year has been different. The Monarchs have not arrived in the numbers of the past. We never seemed to have the early first wave. We have had few if any eggs and caterpillars on our milkweed patches through the early and mid-summer weeks.
The wintering grounds in Mexico are in danger. The Monarch population there is rapidly decreasing. Some of their necessary stopping-over places have been hit by serious drought; there is increasing use of herbicides which reduces the milkweed populations and insecticides which wipe out caterpillars. As the population moves up from wintering grounds in Mexico they stop, feed, mate and lay eggs. Each successive generation makes its way farther north. Only now, in late summer, are we noticing more Monarchs, slowly filtering into our meadows of goldenrod and wild milkweed.

Life cycle of the Monarch Butterfly

During summer it's a challenge to find the eggs and when possible, save them from mowing by bringing the leaves indoors, watching over them until they hatch and then begin the daily runs to find new milkweed leaves to feed the rapidly growing and ravenous ( and always “pooping”) caterpillars! ( photo 1) That phase can last a couple of weeks.
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The next stage, the chrysalis formation, seems to happen behind your back or while you blink. If you are really lucky and attentive, you get to see the process: First they will find a sturdy stick to adhere to by creating a web-like, silken material to suspend themselves upside, down in the letter J formation. (photo 2) Then they straighten down and begin a fine quivering for just a short time and then they become still. (photo 3) It is then that the striped caterpillar skin begins to split from the bottom, its head end. (photo 4) In less than a minute, the skin spits entirely up, and beneath it, the pale clear green of the chrysalis casing is exposed. (photo 5) For a short time you can almost discern the features, head, proboscis, folded wings, of the changeling within.(photo 6) Soon the case hardens and becomes ringed with a crown of gold dots. (photo 7)The chrysalis is complete and we wait…and watch…for about 10 days. 
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One day, the coloring changes. The skin of the chrysalis becomes transparent and the black and orange colors of the Monarch are visible. (photo 8) In that day, the emergence will occur. The chrysalis will wiggle, and skin will split. This time the splitting releases the butterfly within. (photo 9) It is wrinkled and compressed. It will hang from its case for several hours until fluid from its body fills the veins in its wings to harden and strengthen them. (photo 10) 
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 It is very vulnerable during this time and needs protection, but by the end of that day, the Monarch will be able to fly off, seek out its nectar sources from our gardens and meadows. 
Hopefully it will find a mate and a milkweed patch to continue the cycle. As summer comes to an end and frost threatens, the Monarchs congregate along the shorelines, meadows and dunes that are covered with goldenrod blossoms. They will feed heavily before instinct takes them on a Northerly breeze, on their way back to wintering grounds on the mountainsides of Mexico.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.