Sunday, August 30, 2015

“Hanging Up”...Not the Phone or Your Clothing

In dragonfly parlance “hanging up” is a phrasal verb describing perching behavior of certain species of dragonflies; the term defines a dragonfly species clinging to vegetation in a vertical manner. So, what is the big deal? Well, if you want to identify or photograph a certain species, finding said species hanging up might be the best/only opportunity. Why?  Some dragonflies fly almost constantly and they are referred to as “fliers” (duh:-)

The 41 species of the Darner family (Aeshnidae) are notorious fliers. How often do they hang up? No pattern or cycle has been identified or published, it seems to be all random. Now imagine trying to find a two to three and a half inch long dragonfly, using a mental search image, hanging from a leaf, branch, snag from ground level to tree top. Mission unlikely unless you see one hang up in real time. Following a dragonfly in flight is tricky; they can move in any of six ways instantly: forward, back, left, right, down and up. Even only at 34 mph, typical maximum flight speed (Wikipedia), following a dragonfly can be difficult.

Like everything else, once you do something regularly your skills, knowledge improve and actions uncover more opportunity. Your actions become quick, instinctual, a novice might describe it as magic (think identification when birding). A veteran dragonfly enthusiast from Texas, Troy Hibbitts, related a recent experience with a flier on the Texas Odes listserve:

Regal Darner would be a New County Record and westernmost record for the species here in Kinney County.  I've now seen 4 here . . .but alas no photos!

Last year, I had 3 Regal Darner fly-bys at Fort Clark Springs, two of which were at close range (once while I was driving out to the wastewater treatment ponds, and one while I was swimming at the pool). No real photo opportunities last year.

Today, while my wife and I were running trails, I flushed a large darner.  I was in front, and going slowly enough that I was able to stop and watch it hang back up.  Boom! Regal Darner at close range, hung up!  Dagnabit!  Camera 2 miles away at home!  So we edged carefully around it, and left it hanging up.  It never once moved.  I'd estimate the run back to the truck at 5 minutes, 10 minutes to drive back to the house, grab the camera, and drive back.  Got back.  Still hanging.  Still at a distance, it noticed me, rocked once.  I should have taken the obscured by branches "safe" shot.  Stupidly, I did not.  Took half step to right to get the unobstructed "safe" shot.  It flew off its perched, right over my head, thought about hanging up right there, then wheeled back out over the trail and flew up into the canopy!!! 

Troy’s wonderful, dramatic story highlights the upside and downside challenge of “doing” dragonflies. By the way, this has happened to me just not on the same scale. Have been lucky lately. Photographed two Paddle-tailed Darners (Aeshna palmata below) hung up on the same day (first for me), one found by search image (low in grass) and the other in real time (20 foot up in cottonwood).

I encourage you to hang around at your favorite nature hang out, perhaps you will hang with some cooperative dragonfly species. Just don’t get hung up on instant success...the fun is in the long-term doing :-)

Paddle-tailed Darner

Paddle-tailed Darner

Sunday, August 2, 2015

No Wildfires Close to Home...Yet

Almost two years ago a wildfire started about 11 miles from our house in Lolo, Montana. Over several days it got's the blog story. Well, smoke came into the Bitterroot Valley today, most significant so far IMHO. Fortunately it's not of local origin, really dry here. The smoke is not nearly as bad as two years ago (photo below, compare to blog video).
Lolo, Montana
Still it is incredible that fires from the Pacific coast and central Washington can impact our air quality. Not so much, just navigate to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality website for many links and overviews of current fires/impacts. There are 11 large incident fires in play right now, most in California.

Keep the firefighters in your thoughts and prayers as they try to can keep the fires in check safely.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Using a Canon EF 180mm f3.5L Macro USM AutoFocus Telephoto Lens

Digital Camera World posted "75 Canon photography tips for taking control of your camera"...great stuff! I especially liked #51 Marvelous Macro, since I just finished renting the Canon EF 180mm f3.5L Macro USM AutoFocus Telephoto Lens from Lens Rentals on my Canon 70D for four days.

As background, I own two other Canon macro lenses: the 100 mm L IS model and the MP-E 65 1-5x model. Plus, I use the 70-300 mm L telephoto model also for "close shots" of dragonflies and butterflies. These bugs are what I'm currently focused on (excuse the pun). Well the rental equipment was...incredible!!! Some comparison shots (uncropped and unprocessed except for conversion from RAW to jpeg) are below, caveat none of these photos were controlled in an exacting measure except all were taken using a tripod.

Initial impressions, the 100 mm macro and telephoto take sharp photos, but don't fill the crop sensor frame (yes, it's dependent on distance, many cases these critters cannot be approached with camera/tripod in hand). Note the 180 mm, very sharp and large image...what's not to like? I'm going to have to buy this lens; you should too :-) BTW, the rental experience was excellent.
Cherry-faced Meadowhawk (ad. male) - 100 mm macro

Striped Meadowhawk (ad. male) - 70-300 mm telephoto

Striped Meadowhawk (ad. male) - 180 mm macro

Monday, July 27, 2015

Birders - 10 Reasons You Should Also Dragonfly Watch

  1. Use the same equipment -  Yep, close-focus binoculars and a camera (probably a good point & shoot zoom) are basically all you need. Yes, you can net these animals, but in most cases it is not necessary. Sheryl Chacon website has a good overview of equipment et al.
  2. Similar habitats as for birding - Dragonflies require water habitats for breeding, but many can be found far from water outside of reproduction. That includes upland, desert, grassland and even urban/people places. You can start a yard list even without a created wetland (dragonflies in our yard eat bugs attracted to our flowers) suggested by the National Wildlife Federation.
  3. Best time for dragonfly watching is mid-morning through dusk - Birding definitely falls off during this time, fill the gap with dragonflies. My field trips (kind of go/no-go decision) target conditions of ~60 F (minimum temperature as defined by this paper by T. Sformo and P. Doak) and sunny as necessary for dragonfly flight activity. Midday anywhere USA fits the bill for those minimums. C.L. Goforth has a blog outlining weather and odonate behavior. 
  4. Many dragonfly populations are at their peak in the summer - Birding slows in the summer, while dragonfly activity peaks. Dragonfly action starts late spring into summer/fall for the temperate areas of the U.S. Areas of the south can have substantial activity year round because of warmer seasonal temperatures.  Texas Parks and Wildlife (authors Mark Klym and Mike Quinn) has a comprehensive guide (pdf) for download.
  5. Numerous individuals to identify - The journal Ecology (56:302–317) has a paper by Arthur C. Benke and Susan S. Benke (1975), Comparative Dynamics and Life Histories of Coexisting Dragonfly Populations (abstract here). The authors measured an average of about 1000 dragonfly larvae/square meter in a 1 hectare farm pond. 
  6. Colors, shapes and behaviors mimic bird diversity - Excellent field guides/references exist for dragonflies. The comprehensive field guide by Dennis Paulson (2012), Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West outlines the 348 species of the American West. He also has a companion guide for the eastern U.S. Another national field guide is from Sidney W. Dunkle (2000), Dragonflies Through Binoculars. If you live in the south check out Dragonflies and Damselflies of Georgia and the Southeast (Giff Beaton 2007) or Dragonflies and Damselflies of Texas and South-Central United States (John C. Abbott, 2005).  
  7. Be 1st to discover the dragonfly community of your favorite birding patch - As a citizen-scientist, contribute dragonfly records to Odonata Central that assist in detailing “the distribution, biogeography, biodiversity, and identification of Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) world-wide”.
  8. Appreciate falcon and flycatcher skill in catching dragonflies - You might be surprised to find out that even Northern Cardinals eat dragonflies (The Birders Bug Book by Gilbert Waldbauer, 1998).
  9. About 50 dragonfly species migrate - Can be a spectacle along coasts or even at a hawk watch, e.g. Hawk Ridge at Duluth (Kurt Mead, 2009, Dragonflies of the North Woods).
  10. Symbol of clean water...they eat mosquitos :-)Earth Times has a short overview of dragonfly species as clean water indicators. 

Eight-spotted Skimmer

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Pine White Butterfly - Current Wildlife Spectacle

There seems to be a boom right now in the Pine White (Neophasia menapia) Bitterroot Valley population. I got a second hand report of clouds of white butterflies floating about the crown of Ponderosa Pine at the Bass Creek NRA campground. I saw many on a weekend hike at Blodgett Canyon Overlook. According to Pyle (2002), this species of White (Pieridae family) is unusual for its preference of conifer as larval host and the population booms (outside of this, common most years).

Who hasn't watched the nature specials on television highlighting the wildebeest migration in Africa. Or read of the extinct Passenger Pigeon migration numbers. Though this event is not on equal footing, it is surreal, poetic and memorable. We wildlife watchers wish to be there for these displays of life. They are special to see and be part of. Check your flower garden, maybe your plantings have contributed to an increased number of locally common butterfly...that is just as exciting!

Below is a photo from August 2011 at Bass Creek NRA illustrating the incredible spectacle of white butterflies there that year:

Below are close-ups of a female (creamy with reddish coloring on trailing wing edges) and a male (white with thin black lines):
Female Pine White

Male Pine White

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Dragonflies Get "Fleas" of a Sort,Too

I recently posted a photo of a male Tule Bluet (Enallagma carunculatum) with ectoparasites on a Google Plus post+Bette Kauffman commented on the presence of "mites" on this damselfly; +Didier Houbrechts expressed that mites were also "in Europe and on dragonflies too"  and +viviane godenne weighed in "seen in Belgium also...sometimes in impressive numbers."

So, I did some research on this. Found several references that researched these parasites. And yes, they are mites, Water Mites (Arrenurus sp.) to be more precise. Corbett (1999) is cited by R. J. Andrew et al [Journal of Threatened Taxa 7(1): 6821–6825] having identified 55 species of mites that are parasitic on Odonates. Andrew et al went on to identify 7 species of dragonfly with mite infestations in central India; only 9.3% of the 365 sampled odonates had mites. The main attachment site was the thorax and females (39%) had more mites than males (9%).

The mites attach to adult dragonflies as these insects morph from their aquatic form to terrestrial form. Mites mainly chew through the dragonfly exoskeleton where "plates" intersect and are "structurally weak". However, there instances of mites attaching to the wings, here is a link to Google Images illustrating this.

A. Zawal [Biological Lett. 2006 43(2) 257-276] researched water mites in northwest Poland and found the mites infested nine species of damselfly. The rate of attachment was 77% with high numbers per host animal (up to 195). Attachment sites were the thorax and the abdomen.

The mites engorge on the host dragonfly expanding to 140 times original size (M. R. Forbes et al Experimental and Applied Acarology 34: 79–93, 2004). They drop off the host dragonfly when the odonates return to the water to breed. Forbes et al overview research that indicates mites (few or many) affect their hosts in a negative fashion though effects aren't consistent.

Most interesting correlation is the coloration of mites as they mature; all attached mites change color with age in a synchronous pattern [R. Mitchell American Midland Naturalist
Vol. 82, No. 2 (Oct., 1969), pp. 359-366]. Mitchell proposes this is one way an odonate can be also aged; it has been done with mosquitos!

So here are a couple of my photos of what you can now look for and add to the science of this subject :-)

Cherry-faced Meadowhawk

Lestes sp.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Rethought Green Lawn...What's Flowering Instead?

Several years ago we stopped mowing our lawn and incrementally started adding "wildflowers". For sure, this is not a pure/pristine restoration effort, i.e. this will never mirror a historic plant community. The objective is: a) propagate larval host plants for butterflies b) cultivate plant species known as key nectar sources for pollinators c) demonstrate/be-a-catalyst for rethinking the "green lawn".

Have had success in meeting objectives though the yard is still evolving/changing. Have been adding different native species (seeds) every year. Of course, this takes time and patience. This method is pure expectation and fun. I wonder what will take root and multiply. Will Monarchs appear at some point in time on the Showy Milkweed? Build It and They Will Come exampled butterfly usage a few years ago. Nothing like looking out the window and seeing some beautiful flowers (see below) at a minimum. Consider using a part of your lawn for ecology and beauty. Thank you :-)

Black-eyed Susan


Wild Flax


Monday, June 15, 2015

Discovery of Clustered Broomrape...Unusual Plant

Observed (1st sighting for me) today an unusual plant on a sagebrush flat near Stevensville, MT. Orobanche fasciculata is a parasitic plant; it has no chlorophyll or photosynthetic ability. The roots of this plant envelop adjacent plant roots. By doing so it obtains all the water and nutrients needed to grow. Beyond this fact, little is known of the life histories of Broomrape. There are three other species of Orobanche in Montana that differ by color and structure. Most are parasitic mainly on Sagebrush (Artemsia) with Asteraceae, Rannunculaceae, Saxifragaceae and Crassulaceae also advantaged (Lesica 2012). It is a colorful plant about 3 inches in height. Noticeable due to clumped stems and "large" brownish flowers with yellow throats.
Clustered Broomrape (Orobanche fasciculata)

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Respiration of a Four-spotted Skimmer

I was lucky to capture video of a "large" dragonfly on a close-by perch recently. While watching the short video, I noticed the the abdomen expanding/contracting greatly and quickly. Hadn't noticed that extreme of action in the past. So, I did some research on insect respiration and found this excellent website for explanation: HOW DO INSECTS BREATHE? AN OUTLINE OF THE TRACHEAL SYSTEM. Here's the visual:

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Botanical Terms...A Visual for Suborbicular

Three species of Prairie Star or Fringecup are present in Montana and other parts of the American West. Line drawings and written botanical descriptions (keys) are confusing, unclear and somewhat contradictory on how to separate and identify Lithophragma glabrum and Lithophragma parviflorum. This situation will continue to crop up for all kinds of fauna as our knowledge expands (variation and hybrids). No doubt, photos and line drawings cannot be done for every plant part. So, language must be used to precisely describe plant parts. And plant descriptions are really ripe for some good nature smirking/what-the-heck head scratching.

Here's the leaf blade description from Lesica (2012) for A) Lithophragma glabrum and B) Lithophragma parviflorum:
A) "glabrous below, sparsely hairy above, 5-20 mm wide, reniform, deeply 3-lobed and lobed again."
B) "white-hairy and glandular, 1-3 cm wide, suborbicular, twice deeply 3-lobed ."

Reniform means "kidney shaped" and suborbicular describes imperfectly circular. The leaf shapes don't sort the plants out by my eye using the photos below. On the other hand, leaf hairiness is distinct and quickly separates out the two species. The first key (Lesica 2012) in sorting these species is the number of lobes per flower petal; glabrum has five and parviflorum has three.

Reference: Manual of Montana Vascular Plants, Peter Lesica, 2012, Brit Press, Fort Worth, TX

Here's what they look like:
Lithophragma glabrum flower
Lithophragma glabrum stem leaf

Lithophragma glabrum basal leaf
Lithophragma parviflorum flower
Lithophragma parviflorum stem leaf

Lithophragma parviflorum basal leaf

Monday, April 27, 2015

Wildflowers Now Blooming...Current "Power Tool"

Actively searching out wildflowers this spring. Having much fun with my Canon 70D camera. So I've embedded what I "captured/created" for your viewing pleasure. According to Daniel DiPiazza, Fortune writer, "Creativity is your power tool regardless of your industry". He quotes Picasso, Stephen King and Einstein as to the process used in creativity and problem solving. They recommended "working backwards", setting daily quotas and "combinatory play". May the images below assist in your finding good ideas :-)
Heartleaf Arnica
Red Kittentails

Little Larkspur

Nuttall's Pussytoes

Wyeth's Lupine

Saturday, April 25, 2015

1st Dragonfly...err Damselfly for the Year

Much to my surprise a small damselfly flushed out of the Pollinator Garden at Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge today. Was able to relocate and get a photo. Tweeted the accomplishment:
This post isn't supposed to be about me boasting of an early date or discovery, instead it is a template for your success. Know, that if you apply yourself...well you get better in ways you cannot guess. Being aware of wildlife/nature is a well of possibility for "combinatorial creativity". I am no Maria Popova, but I embrace her writing and hope to develop this blog in such a way :-)

Monday, April 20, 2015

Thomas Nuttall...Naturalist Extraordinaire

Thomas Nuttall was born in Yorkshire (England) in 1786. Considered one of the greatest botanists following his death in 1859. As a teenager, his father signed him up for a seven year printer apprenticeship. His real love...well he got hooked on botanizing local moors. So he came to the United States in 1808 to do just that. He connected with Benjamin Barton (author of Elements of Botany, 1803) in Philadelphia. Barton just happened to be looking for an apprentice and Nuttall, now 22, jumped at the opportunity. That was the beginning of incredible accomplishment.

Nuttall became the most traveled naturalist of his generation, six expeditions as far as Hawaii. Most collection (for plants and animals) trips were done alone and on foot much like John James Audubon. He was humble; he admitted to getting lost and rescued by other travelers in his journals. Some folks of that time described him as a "whimsical kind of madman". Could be, Nuttall was singularly focused on collecting plants and animals and information about them. His hard work paid off when he got lecturer position at Harvard University in 1823. He authored, published an affordable bird guide A Manual to the Ornithology of the United States and Canada in 1833. He also coauthored Flora of North America with John Torrey and Asa Gray.

He is memorialized with three bird species named after him (can you name them?). Numerous plants are also bear his name. I found two yesterday along the Clark Fork River in Missoula, MT: Nuttall's Rockcress (Arabis nuttallii) and Nuttall's Violet (Viola nuttallii). Could not find Nuttall's Pussytoes in bloom for three of a kind :-) What's in your neighborhood that may have been discovered 150 years ago?

Reference: Audubon to Xantus The Lives of Those Commemorated in North American Bird Names, Barbara and Richard Mearns, 1992, Academic Press Limited, San Diego, CA
Nuttall's Rockcress

Nuttall's Violet

Thursday, April 16, 2015

More Spring Wildflowers

Our neighborhood has open space "parks" that are essentially disturbed patches of native bunchgrass/forbs. So after work visited for some discovery/camera work. Had success; found three new wildflower species for the year in bloom.

All were fairly easy to detect, 6 inch plus in size either vertical (Hoelbell's Rockcress [Arabis hoelbelli], horizontal (Large-fruit Lomatium [Lomatium macrocarpum] or bushy (Western Gromwell [Lithospermum ruderale]. Wildlife watching strategy can be summed up at times as "what's different?" So, in thirty minutes got fresh air, exercise, employed photography skillset and experienced "flow" (read Csikszentmihalyi 1990). You should try is fun.
Hoelbell's Rockcress

Large-fruit Lomatium

Western Gromwell

Monday, April 13, 2015

Photographic Endeavors Do Not All End in Success

Sometimes certain plants, animals and weather do not cooperate with your photographic efforts. That was partially true today; had great backdrop of temperatures in the mid 60's with lots of sunshine. I went to one of my favorite places, Bass Creek National Recreation Area. It is great for a host of wildlife (birds, butterflies, fungi,wildflowers and lichen). Primary focus today was on early season butterflies with a backup plan of birds and wildflowers. Butterfly action was good, plenty to see and cooperative. First of year Western Pine Elfin recorded along with several Spring Azure, Green Comma, Hoary Comma and Mourning Cloak.

Ah yes, then the photo nemesis, the darting/never landing Sara Orangetip (Anthocharis sara); it blasted by me until the third encounter. I ran after it (on gravel road as opposed to the uphill scramble of last week...still breathing hard :-) and it landed on one of the two Prairie Star (Lithophragma sp.) wildflower species. The slightest breeze and this diminutive plant sways. I stopped a distance away and shot a multitude of photos prioritized on shutter speed. From the "best four" I created an animated GIF for your viewing enjoyment:
Sara Orangetip (Anthocharis sara)
Yep, they are all out-of-focus :-) No worries I have a couple of shots from a couple years ago to show you how stunning these critters are (below). Now, you can understand how easy it is to chase after this is just very cool looking!
Nectaring for a brief period

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Cladonia sp. lichen - The Forest Within the Forest

Sometimes little effort and little space is needed to find wildlife. For instance a single boulder (anywhere, USA) likely has six or more species of crustose (pancake-like in structure) lichen growing on it. Secondly, season doesn't effect lichen watching - snow can't cover everything (e.g. tree trunks, yep lichens grow there).  Thirdly, looking where you step in the forest is the perfect behavior for finding lichens. Yep, soil is one of the most widespread substrate for lichen, especially those species in the genus Cladonia, generically referred to as Pixie Cup Lichen.

Wildlife names usually hint at what the plant/animal looks like. So, Pixie refers to the "little people" myth of the United Kingdom and I'm guessing they employed Cladonia as drinking vessels (many are cup-like in structure and these lichen occur in Great Britain).  The "little people" must have been really small as many of these lichen are only a half-inch tall, if that. For sure they look like cups, but also like a miniaturized forest, stumps and shrubs in particular. You will see what I mean if you take along a hand lens/camera; either is sufficient to magnify and identify. Any public land area in your area should have a representative of the Cladonia genus; there are 128 species in the U.S. (Brodo et al 2001).

Video (habitat and context) and macrophotographs of four species found in the span of a 30 yard road cut at Bass Creek NRA (Stevensville, MT) follow:

Cladonia multiformis (Sieve Lichen)

Cladonia chlorophaea (Mealy Pixie-cup)

Cladonia coniocraea (Common Powderhorn)

Cladonia fimbriata (Trumpet Lichen)

Monday, April 6, 2015

Candy Lichen...Harder to find than Easter Eggs

Candy Lichen (Icmadophila ericetorum) is considered common in Montana (McCune et al 2014) on rotting wood or soil of low to mid-elevation sites. However, finding/photographing this species (at Lolo Creek Campground if you would like to find it too!) is a first for me. Colors and form (mint and pink, what a combination) are it should not be hard to miss or misidentify. Size, about 2.5"" in diameter, may be a factor. But that is the beauty of all doing, one never gets it "all" without putting in time (lots usually :-)
Candy Lichen
In fact, finding this plant was Plan B. Originally stopped here to find Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca); that did not happen. Temperature of 41 F and snow may have been the cause of this result. Video below gives some context:

Monday, March 23, 2015

2nd Wildflower Species for 2015

3" tall Douglasia in flower 

Pictured is Douglasia (Douglasia montana), a cushion plant of the Phlox family. It blooms early in the spring season. "Cushion" plants usually grow in alpine sites where wind and poor soil challenges plants; natural selection response is short structure. In this case, there's no need to scale a mountain to see this in action, simply go to Missoula Waterworks Hill (  Accessed by foot up an initial somewhat steep slope. Because of this foothill orientation it is exposed to sunshine early in spring; so it is also great spot for other early wildflowers. I finally had blooming plants on my third try (March 22).

Below is a short mp4 (shot with Nexus 7 tablet) of this site on March 2 (note windy wintry conditions :-) The plants grow on the left side of the trail...looks very barren for this video:

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Drizzle...Great Birding Conditions

Rain concentrates birds, the questions become can you figure out where and can you deal with it. Early spring is perfect for birding in a drizzle/intermittent downpour. Cool and wet drives birds to the food.
Low cloud deck drizzle this morning
Insectivores like swallows will be closely over water sources hawking hatching aquatic invertebrates. Robins will be working short grass areas for earthworms. And waxwings will be visiting fruit bearing trees. Had a mixed flock of ~300 Bohemian and Cedar using neighbors' European Mountain Ash (Sorbus aucuparia) trees. It is a wonder every time I see these large flocks; in sum, the calls of these birds might resemble rusty whistles :-)
Cedar Waxwing eating fruit
The sounds not only attract my attention, but also birds that prey on them. Yep, within a short period of watching a Sharp-shinned Hawk showed up.
Sharp-shinned Hawk in Ponderosa Pine near European Mountain Ash
This is likely the same bird seen and photographed on January 1. Yes, if you can protect your camera gear excellent photos can also be had. Please reflect on the animal ethical in behavior :-)

Monday, February 23, 2015

Cedar and Bohemian Waxwing Perched Together

Had both waxwing species perch very close to one another this morning and I just happened to have camera in hand. Yes, field guides have excellent photos/drawings accentuating diagnostic marks of these species. Thought my photo might add some context (for those brief looks) to field guide descriptions. The chest/belly coloration of each is distinctly different. The light vs dark undertail coverts jump out in a glance. Not as obvious are the contrasting white areas on each bird (Cedar - on face, Bohemian - on wing). Note the extensive black chin of the Bohemian. Yep, the gizz of the Bohemian is chunkier and smaller-headed. Hope this helps you check-off a vagrant Bohemian back east :-) Great Birding!
Cedar (left) and Bohemian (right) Waxwing

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Wildlife Spectacle..."Museum" of Waxwing

A large, congealed flock of waxwing finally showed up the other morning in the neighborhood. Captured video and still footage of the action edited for this YouTube product:

This has been the largest flock of these birds I've seen this winter. The berry crop (European Mountain-ash) is huge this year. So abundance of fruit may have these birds less concentrated. I encourage you to check out your own area for the spectacle of these birds :-)

Monday, January 19, 2015

Odd Wing Molt in Rough-legged Hawk

While outside (Florence, Montana) yesterday looking for Snow Bunting (and other open country birds), encountered several buteo soaring along mountain foothill (nice and windy) instead. Light was not good; identification of far soaring birds came out "black" :-) No matter stayed on task and was rewarded with both eagle species and one buteo with "several" flight feathers missing. That is really weird. Got out my camera rig (Canon T1i w/70-300mm) and shot several photos at least one football field away, results below. It is definitely a Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) with at least three flight feathers missing from the left wing. It was flying just fine by the way!

I visited Jerry Ligouri website, expert raptor photographer. In a brief search of his site could not find specific material related to rough-legs and molt. Still, he has excellent material on all things hawks, identification, photographs, etc.

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk (Note faint thick belly band)

Friday, January 16, 2015

Lighting and Butterfly Identification

Many butterflies are only identified by the underwing color and pattern. Hopefully the butterfly cooperates and shows the wing surface necessary for identification. Fortunately, Commas or Anglewings can be identified either by the upper or underwing. They are separated easily from other butterfly species by the whitish silver "comma" mark on the underwing. There are four species I regularly encounter in western Montana: Satyr, Green, Oreas and Hoary. The underwing coloration, in general and subject to variation, of each respectively is: buffy brown, dark brown, blackish brown and grey.

The position of the wing in relation to the sun is critical for "true coloration", ergo proper identification. Remember coloration of butterflies (and birds too) observed may or is determined by light striking actual colored pigment or by absorption/reflection by the wing scales. And scales cover a transparent membrane. The three photos below illustrate wing coloration of a Hoary Comma (Polygonia gracilis) nectaring on Rabbitbrush under different light aspects (same day/same place).

Note the reddish brown underwing coloration of the most immediate photo below. For sure an artifact of backlighting, the wings are open enough for direct light to strike the upperwing. As a consequence the orange color suffuses the underwing. The second photo below captures the butterfly with its wings partially open negating backlighting, but introducing a shading factor. The underwing is not getting direct lighting and is likely darker than it really is. The third photo reveals the true underwing color, grey...diagnostic for a Hoary Comma.

Again, lighting is very important for identification by sight or photograph. This situation crops up on a regular basis even when aware and compensation (keeping the sun to your back...if possible) is attempted. All is not lost because many less-than-ideal looks/photos will still have enough colors and features to id, if that is one of your goals. Study your field guides now...April/May is not far away to test your skills :-)

Wings Folded Open "Backlighting" Underwing

Wings Partially Open Shading Underwing

Wings Closed, Underwing Exposed to Direct Light