Dia Nueve -- Adios Mis Amigos

(Well, all trips come to an end, and as I now post the last entry, I say farewell to Costa Rica -- for now....) This was our first "proper" trip to a place south of Texas (a couple cruise vacation stops don't count, now matter how adventurous we may have been).

We had heard that Costa Rica was incredible. That can't even describe the time we've had.

IMG_2267web    IMG_2254web

I write this on el noche de dia ocho feeling a bit blue about our impending departure though we still have until the early afternoon to enjoy the region.


On this last evening, I reflect not only on the wildlife, but also the people we've met. Expert naturalists like Raul and Roger, fantastic photographers like Juan, and Hobssee always ready with the field guide -- these were only some of the terrific people we met. All offered warmth and enthusiasm for the environment -- a consistent theme in this country that runs from mountains to rain forest to beach.

Pura vida mis amigos. We will see you again soon.



This is the last of the several mornings we've been up at dawn (I seem to get more rest at home in the city that never sleeps!), with an alarm clock of birds and insects plus crowing roosters and a barking dog.

The final morning's list netted new species, bringing our total of new birds to over 100.

  • Hoffman's Woodpecker
  • Great Kisskadee
  • Scarlet Macaw
  • Blue-gray Tanager
  • Clay-colored Robin
  • Baltimore Oriole
  • Great-tailed Grackle
  • Montezuma Oropendula
  • Blue-crowned (or turquoise browed?) mot mot
  • White-winged Dove
  • Palm Tanager
  • Rufous-naped Wren
  • Crimson-fronted parakeet
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Great Egret
  • Steely-vented Hummingbird
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Masked Tityra
  • Brown-hooded Parrot
  • Barred Hawk

And just 15 minutes before our car picked us up, a White-throated Magpie Jay.


Hasta luego!

Dia Siete -- Marathon Birding

In the mountains, birding started at 7am. But here in the tropics, the heat means an earlier start and we have now set a record -- present and accounted for at 6am! Roadside Hawk

Led by our new friend Roger, incredible naturalist (and former professional soccer player), we explored the 11 acres of this sustainably-managed hotel. By the time we were finished 3 1/2 hours later we couldn't believe that we spotted so much wildlife and lasted so long without breakfast!

Bananaquit   Pale-billed Woodpecker

The morning was so divine that we met Roger again for an early evening walk.


Wonderful new amigo, mesmerizing birds. I see why Costa Rica is so special.

  • Black-hooded Ant Shrike
  • Palm Tanager
  • Spotted Woodcreeper
  • Pale-billed Woodpecker
  • Inca Dove
  • Groove-billed Ani
  • Boat-billed Flycatcher
  • Gray-necked Woodrail
  • Ferrigunous Pygmy Owl
  • Golden-hooded Tanager
  • Broad-winged Hawk
  • Short-tailed Hawk
  • Double-toothed Kite
  • Roadside Hawk
  • Tropical Kingbird
  • Great Kisskadee
  • Social Flycatcher
  • Brown Booby
  • Northern Oriole
  • Great-crested Flycatcher
  • Cherrie's Tanager
  • Bananaquit
  • Orange-chinned Parakeet
  • Yellow-crowned Euphonia
  • Blue-crowned Motmot
  • Fiery-billed Aracari
  • Western Kingbird
  • Blue-gray Tanager
  • Golden-naped Woodpecker
  • Red-legged Honeycreeper
  • Brown Pelican
  • Magnificent Frigatebird
  • Neotropical Cormorant
  • Tennessee Warbler
  • Worm-eating Wrabler
  • Red-crowned Woodpecker
  • Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
  • Black Vulture
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Costa Rican Swift
  • Streaked Flycatcher
  • Crimson-front Parakeet
  • Great-tailed Grackle
  • Pale-vented Pigeon
  • Yellow-crowned Euphonia
  • Dusky-capped Flycatcher
  • Yellow warbler

Other critters:

  • Jesus Christ Lizard (so named, according to Roger, because that's what you'll exclaim after bumping into this formabile reptile on a dark forest trail)
  • Two-toed Sloth
  • Black Iguana
  • White-faced Capuchin Monkey

Jesus Christ Lizard   Flycatcher species

Dia Seis -- Song of the Gecko

Night in the tropical wet forest (a climate just a few inches shy of being a full-fledged rain forest) differs from the cloud forest not only in temperature and air moisture but also in sound. Mountains feature subtle insect sound, while in the tropics, it's a cacophony. Insects sing through the night and birds call well before the sun rises and temperatures rise. But of all these calling creatures, I found the geckos most intriguing.

House Gecko

The first night I thought I was hearing raccoons chattering. It wasn't until dinner that the songsters became apparent -- House Geckos on the outdoor restaurant walls and ceiling bleated out territory warnings to each other while hunting for insect dinners.

House Gecko

In spite of the hotel's resident naturalist's warnings, we hiked through a portion of Manuel Antonio National Park. The naturalist was dead-right -- the park was quite crowded with weekend tourists and locals enjoying the beach and thus wildlife was at a minimum (looking forward to joining him for a walk tomorrow morning). Nevertheless, we enjoyed the walk and had a few nice animal sightings.  We left the Park in awe of how clean the beach and trails were in spite of the crowds -- until a raccoon family uncovered their lunch from a trash can.

White-faced Capuchin Monkey   Three-toed SlothThree-toed Sloth   Iguana   Lizard   SpiderRaccoons   Raccoons Crab   Crab

Dia Cuatro -- The Robin was Right

Raúl, our naturalist guide from the previous day, pointed out a particularly melodic trill from the Clay-colored Robin. Based on the song, one would understandably expect to see a stunner of a bird especially since it is the national bird of Costa Rica, yet the species is quite true to its common name with dull, brownish coloring, but at least sporting a regal shape. Clay-colored Robin   Clay-colored Robin

As Raúl explained, the robin became the national bird thanks to its talents as a barometer long before our current weather forecasts. The trill we were enjoying signaled rain and farmers of years gone by would use the song as a signal to sow seeds for the season's crops. Thanks to this helpful tendency, the Clay-colored Robin became a national symbol.

Based on the song we were enjoying, Raúl said rain would be arriving that afternoon, or perhaps the next day.

Mountain Flowers

Some afternoon clouds did not bring precipitation and when I awoke the next morning -- again at 5! -- the sky was cloudy but there was no sign of overnight rain. By breakfast, blue skies reigned.

While more than happy on a personal level about the conditions, I was disappointed. Could it be that the robin was wrong?

We spent the early part of the day on another 5 hour hike to a waterfall, improving our Costa Rican birding skills, and finally setting our eyes upon the trophy bird of the region -- the Resplendent Quetzal (in our case, views of both the male and female)!

Flame-colored Tanager   WarblerAmerican Dipper   Hummingbird   Damselfly - Costa Rica   Savegre River    Green Violet-ear   Slaty Flowerpiercer Blue-gray Tanager

This spotting was made possible by a sweet Quebecois couple and their 16 month-old baby enjoying a hike. During our chat, we learned that their hike -- only about a mile from the Lodge -- on the previous afternoon was cut short by rain.

Resplendent Quetzal

Ah, the climate of the mountains. Bottom line: the Robin was right.

Bird list for the day:

  • Black Vulture
  • Rufous-collared Sparrow
  • Respendent Quetzal
  • Chestnut-capped Brush Finch
  • American Dipper
  • Yellow-winged Vireo
  • Spangled-cheek Tanager
  • Black-throated Green Warbler
  • Flame-throated Warbler
  • Gray-breasted Wood Wren
  • Torrent Tyrannulet
  • Silvery-throated Tapaculo
  • Acorn Woodpecker
  • Sulfur-winged Parakeet
  • Striped-tail Hummingbird
  • Yellowish Flycatcher
  • Gray-tailed Mountain Gem
  • Magnificent Hummingbird
  • Flame-colored Tanager
  • Band-tailed Pigeon

Dia Dos - I Eat a Moth

(NOTE: The Costa Rica expedition has ended and though I did not keep timely updates to the little blog, I did at least make notes for each day.  Thus, I now play "catch up.") While I love moths, it's more of a general appreciation and not a consuming passion.  Yet, walking up the mini-mountain to our cabin at the Savegre Lodge, I stopped, sucked in a deep breath of oxygen available at 7,200 feet and choked.

I had no idea what the problem was until lovely husband inquired "Did you just swallow that moth I brushed out of my way?"

Indeed, I did.

Lepidoptera consumption aside, here at Sevegre, in the ominously-named Cerro de la Muerta area of the Talamanca mountain range, we are consumed by a different group of critters -- hummingbirds.

The weather here is cool but comfortable (except a bit chilly in the evenings) and I don't notice quite as many butterflies (and one less moth!) as seen the day before outside Heredia.  But birds are a-plenty and we haven't even ventured off the property yet for a proper walk.

Just a few hours ago we were back in Heredia where I started a new trend -- waking up at dawn (though if I were a truly intrepid soul I'd be up BEFORE dawn).  It was difficult, but once outside, I was more than pleased, if not downright overwhelmed.

Birds galore -- including those butterflies mentioned a moment ago -- whizzing, zipping before my eyes.  And the sound!  This was not bird song but rather a collection of chirrups, squawks, and a cacophony of dog squeaky toys!


Identification became futile as there was just so much to take in of completely foreign birds to my limited expertise and I was completely relieved to enjoy the morning flirtations of two variegated squirrels.  I offer an equal opportunity program of love for all  critters, but rodents have a special spot in my heart.

IMG_9569web   IMG_9580web

Yet, I digress.  That was this morning, and this is now.  At our new mountain abode, hummingbird feeders are positioned for easy viewing and in the few hours here I have seen more individual hummingbirds -- and more individual species -- than I have seen before in my life.  And with over 50 species to choose from, I haven't even bothered with trying to identify them yet.

Hummingbird   Hummingbird

Hummingbird   Hummingbird

Besides this great spotting, we observed the species Homo sapiens, variety Aves-watchers run through the cafeteria from one end to the other.  Curiosity consumed us and we followed to find they were enjoying close up views of Emerald Toucanets.

IMG_9595web   Emerald Toucanet

As I close out the day earlier than the night before (we have a 5 hour guided bird walk at  the ghastly hour of 7am!), here are the bird sightings of the day.  You'll excuse the very scientific descriptions of a couple....

  • Blue-gray Tanager
  • Rufous-collared Sparrow
  • Acorn Woodpecker
  • Baltimore Oriole
  • Mississippi Kite
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Clay-colored Robin
  • Some kind of black flycatching bird
  • Some kind of yellow bird

Salt Flats to Mountain Tops

Light on words, heavy on images for this post.  Some snaps from our recent trip to Utah - 5 days spent within 2 hours of Salt Lake City.  Stunning place with such diverse landscapes, flora and fauna! American Avocet, Antelope Island State Park, Utah   Antelope Island State Park, Utah

Antelope Island State Park, Utah   Long-billed Curlew, California Gulls, Black-necked Stilt - Antelope Island State Park, Utah

American Bison - Antelope Island State Park, Utah   Loggerhead Shrike - Antelope Island State Park, Utah

California Gulls - Antelope Island State Park, Utah    Antelope Island State Park, Utah

American White Pelican - Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Utah   Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Utah

Yellowlegs - Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Utah   White-tailed Deer - Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Utah

3rd Dam, Logan Canyon - Wasatch National Forest   3rd Dam, Logan Canyon - Wasatch National Forest

3rd Dam, Logan Canyon - Wasatch National Forest   Least Chipmunk - Park City area, Utah

   3rd Dam, Logan Canyon - Wasatch National Forest

Park City area, Utah   Wildflower - Park City area, Utah

Wildflowers - Red Butte Botanical Garden, Utah   Fragrance Walk - Red Butte Botanical Garden, Utah

Great Salt Lake - Utah   Bonneville Salt Flats - Utah

Western Utah

War Games

I have seen the enemy and it has compound eyes and six legs. Right now, a war is on against a few members of the class Insecta. This crafty enemy is armed with efficient mouth parts and, shall we say, energetic reproductive systems. I am outgunned.

But let me back up.

Insects are fascinating creatures with astounding variations on the general theme that makes an insect, well, an insect: those compound eyes and six jointed legs, along with an exoskeleton, three body parts (head, thorax and abdomen), and a pair of antennae. Within those limitations are all shapes, sizes, colors, antennae and wing forms, mouth parts , life cycle appearances - the list goes on.

Insectarium, Montreal   Insectarium, Montreal

Insectarium, Montreal

With over 100,000 different insects and other arthopods (this includes critters like crabs), we need to live with their prescence and appreciate their role in the ecosystem, and yes, admire their beauty.

I like to think that I'm one of those who reach that elevated state of mind, and thus avoid using chemical controls in the garden. But claiming such benevolence at this moment might be hypocrisy.

Meet the key enemies of the state (er, garden):

Mexican Bean Beetle -- related to the beneficial Lady Beetle (or Lady Bug), the chewing mouth parts of the larval and adult form of this insect is gnawing at my bean's leaves.

Mexican Bean Beetle, adult   Mexican Bean Beetle, larva

Colorado Potato Beetle -- apparently "Go East, young bug" is the advice this chap heeded. Both adults and larvae are chewing up my potato plant's foliage.

Colorado Potato Beetle, adult   Colorado Potato Beetle, young larva

Colorado Potato Beetle, larva

Striped Cucumber Beetle -- I now know who to implicate on the death of my cucumber seedlings last year. Thankfully this year's plants survived their young, tender days (when the adult beetle likes to enjoy them as a snack), but I must continue vigilance since they'll still eat leaves, flowers and fruit. Not enough damage for you? These guys also can transmit bacterium and a virus to the plants.

Striped Cucumber Beetle, adult

Aphids - you want diversity? You have it with this teeny-tiny insects that literally suck the juice from plants (they particularly like my green beans). There are over 1,300 aphid species just in North America. Though probably the most plain in appearance from the other insects I listed, aphids are possibly one of the most fascinating in terms of reproduction and life cycle. Depending on species and time of year, females may give live birth (rather than laying eggs), some have wings while others remain wingless, and females don't always need males to create baby aphids.


So that's a look at the most formidable foes. What are the options for my allied forces?

Know thy enemy. In other words, know the different forms the insect can take depending on its stage in the life cycle. And be careful not to mistake the enemy for one of your allies (as I mistook Lady Beetle eggs for those of Colorado Potato Beetle, I think...).


Hand-to-hand combat. Spraying insecticides opens up a variety of issues so I just pick the bugs off. Perhaps not everyone's cup of tea and yes, I still get plant damage, but I also get some good photos and the chance to further appreciate the natural world, even if it is chewing my veg.

Join forces. One reason not to spray insecticides is that it disrupts the food chain and can kill beneficial insects, of which there are many. Lady Beetle, Praying Mantis, Lacewing, even bird, amphibian and reptile -- all are your combat partners and each have their handy ways of getting the best of the enemy.

Colorado Potato Beetle adult in spider web   Praying Mantis

Northern Mockingbird   Lady Beetle, adult

Lacewing eggs   Toad

Sign a peace treaty. If all else fails, I remember that the insect that is chewing my plant could grow up to be a beauty.

Black Swallowtail, larva   Black Swallowtail Butterfly

Salt Marsh Safari

While it may not be as exotic as an outback excursion to Kenya or similar far-off land, the salt marsh is an ecosystem just as robust. Smithsonian Education and Research Center trail

Salt marshes abound in the NYC area, but a recent trip to see family led us to those hugging the Chesapeake Bay. And the perfect place to marvel at the marsh ecosystem is the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Edgewater, Maryland.

Unbeknownst to us, there was a family public event earlier that day but thankfully we caught the tail end and enjoyed close up views of the Bay's most famous resident -- the Blue Crab (Callinectes sapidus), both the adult form with its colorful but menacing claws, and far less painful-looking "baby" stage measuring about one inch.

 Blue Crab in Chesapeake Bay   Immature Blue Crab in Chesapeake Bay

Hardly an expert on the Chesapeake coastline, I always find it interesting how wooded areas brush up against the waterways or marshes without much transitionary landscapes like beaches or bogs. You have the forest, then BOOM! the water, sometimes with bits of marsh in between.

Smithsonian Education and Research Center trail

The forest part was rich with trees and bird song including our first glimpse of what might have been a Yellow-throated Vireo (Vireo flavifrons) (sorry, no photo). The Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexgutata) cavorted in dappled sunlight and two  Broad-headed Skinks (Eumeces laticeps) tried to hide on a Tulip Tree trunk (Liriodendron tulipifera).

Six-spotted Tiger Beetle

The section of salt marsh we visited perfectly demonstrated why these vital areas are called nurseries. Tide was out but quickly returning, and little fish bubbled in the waters. Dragonflies found nifty perches on new and old grasses. And we were treated to the aerial dexterity of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) looking for...well gnats!

Smithsonian Education and Research Center trails

Fish in the salt marsh   Fish in the salt marsh

 Dragonfly in salt marsh   Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in salt marsh

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in the salt marsh

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in the salt marsh 

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) were ever-present along with Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura). An immature Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) fly-by rounded out the complete salt marsh life cycle experience.

Immature Bald Eagle at the Chesapeake Bay   Turkey Vulture at the Chesapeake Bay

Osprey at the Chesapeake Bay

Garden Companions

I was being watched.  Every move I made, he was there.  But I wasn’t worried – my harmless voyeur was an American Robin. American Robin

Such was my experience several years ago as a horticulture intern at Queens Botanical Garden.  Though consumed with weeding the Fragrance Walk, I soon noticed the male Robin consistently underfoot, enjoying the insects exposed by my work.

I never fuss about in dirt all on my own – as I garden in my little urban farm, eyes are all around.  While I add supports for the newly emerged sugar snap peas, a Red-winged Blackbird offers his advice from the fence.

Red-winged Blackbird

Song Sparrows are happy enough to add a tune to the chores, but seem to have no interest in gardening tasks, keeping a healthy distance from the work.

Song Sparrow

Those Robins are never far as they look to scavenge a tasty treat, while the Tree Swallows zip around high in the air.  Like the Song Sparrows, the swallows don’t show an interest in gardening but are quite happy to show off their aerial acrobatic skills.  Northern Mockingbirds notice the weeds I missed.

Northern Mockingbird

Lady bugs are omnipresent audiences to my horticultural practices, and, later in the season, are joined by dragonflies, butterflies, and the Praying Mantis who will no doubt offer a disapproving look at my skills.

Lady bug


Praying Mantis

If I’m lucky, I’ll also stumble upon one of the two toads who took up residence last year.


And if I’m unlucky, one of the local rats will zip along the fence line, trying to be stealth as he maneuvers into a weedy area within my neighbor’s garden plot.  Sorry, no photos of this critter -- he moves too fast!

Birds, Bugs, Buds, and Buddies

As I consider the last 12 months, the places I've visited and the nature I've enjoyed, one consistent theme shines through: great people. So in this last post of 2011, let me just thank my wonderful friends and family.  Wish I had photos of ya' all, but do have snaps of a few of you to share...

Bird walk at Queens Botanical Garden


Apartment garden

Rebecca and Gennadyi

Susan and our new friend.

Wayne and Mitch

Me and my fluke

Bill on a hike

Mitch and mom

Amanda on a hike

Fritz and friend

But, as always, the biggest thanks goes to Mitch --

Mitch and Flora 

Happy New Year everyone!  Here's to a great 2012!

My Own Walden

I fully admit to bouts of wanderlust.  At the same time, I equally enjoy learning the intimate seasonal details of a particular place. Green roof at Queens Botanical Garden

Thoreau's Walden passed by my eyes many years ago -- high school, perhaps? -- and while I might appreciate the concept behind the man's work, truth be told I found it a bit dull.  Enjoying a recent walk through Queens Botanical Garden has made me reconsider his deep documentation of a single landscape.

I stopped by QBG on a day off when I recalled the previous year's sudden downpour of Kinglets, a sprite of a bird.  That same week a year earlier, both Ruby- and Golden-crowned species (Regulus calendula and satrapa) were thick in the garden.  During my regular lunchtime walk with pal Annette, one nearly landed on her shoulder and a couple days later, another sat on my shoe for a few seconds.  Their quick, flitting motions seemed to be just a sign of their personality rather than an indication of fear -- they were almost tame considering how close we approached.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

This year's journey began when I drove into the service entrance where heaps of manure sat decomposing, awaiting the transformation into excellent compost for the next growing season.  Immediately, I saw quick flashes that, with some later guidance, turned out to be the yellow variation Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum).  While enjoying this sighting, I noticed lovely clusters of mushrooms.  Fungi on decaying matter is not unusual, but I've not seen this type before.  Note to self:  watch manure more frequently.

Mushrooms on manure pile

I moved onto the Parking Garden, a space of great pride at QBG.  You heard right -- Parking GARDEN, not Parking Lot.  This fantastic space not only accommodates cars, but with permeable pavers, rainwater-retaining depressions called bioswales, and native plantings, it can manage stormwater onsite.  It's also a great place to enjoy plants, birds, and insects.

Bees were laying low this day given the breeze but a few Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) drifted past on their migration route.  I wanted to visit a large stand of sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) that Annette and I noticed several weeks earlier.  The flowers should be giving way to seeds by about this time, offering food for various birds, and I was not disappointed to see American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), plus my first Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus).

American Goldfinch on Sunflowers


There are moments I wonder if I spend too much time in just one spot -- so opposite my wanderlust tendencies -- and question if time should be spent in other landscapes.  But looking at the Parking Garden's adjacent meadow and recalling the nesting Killdeers (Charadrius vociferus) in early summer, I reconsider.  After all, if I had not been so tied to watching this landscape with my alert workmate friends, I would have never seen these birds and their two broods raised over the summer.


I rounded a small stand of Poplar trees (Populus spp.), just taking on golden fall colors, and headed to QBG's main gardens.  Abundant blooms in the Perennial Beds clearly did not receive the memo that fall had arrived, though the bright orange Persimmons (Diospyros spp.) -- the outcome of a season filled with hard work from a tree's perspective -- nearly glowed.

Autumn trees   Perennial Beds at Queens Botanical Garden

Northern Mockingbird on Persimmon

Next stop on my Kinglet quest were the turf areas, a rewarding location last year.  This time the grass near the Floral Border was silent, along with the expanse of the Oak Allee where our stunning trees waited to show off autumn hues along with their Red Maple neighbors (Acer rubrum).  It wasn't until the Woodland Garden path that I noticed quick movements in the leaf litter below a Magnolia (Magnolia spp.).  Perhaps not in the same number as before, but the Kinglets had returned on cue.

Maybe it's time to give Walden another go.

P.S. A week later the Pin Oaks (Quercus palustris) and Red Maples caught up to the season.

Red Maple at Queens Botanical Garden

The Restorative Power of Nature (or, Pennsylvania: Land of Adorable Rodents)

Each September finds us making a solemn trip to the western Pennsylvania mountains for a memorial.  It's not a trip we relish but feel compelled to continue.  There is a hidden treat: after six or so hours on the Turnpike, we are transported to a  lovely countryside that softens the experience.  Expansive fields of goldenrod, farms and covered bridges (well, just one that we know of), hardwood forests, rivers and streams, birds and charming animals -- taking a moment to enjoy this backdrop makes our mood more buoyant. So enough words. Let me just simply share this gentle landscape and let you feel restored as well.

Eastern Cottontail Rabbit   Groundhog

Glessner Covered Bridge   PA State Game Land 93

Eastern Chipmunk   Eastern Chipmunk

Dogwood fruit   Meadow in Laurel Ridge State Park

Eastern Chipmunk   Farm by the Glessner Covered Bridge

Eastern Chipmunk  

Meadow in Laurel Ridge State Park   Flower heads   Blooming grass

Goldenrod   Bank and Cliff Swallows

Locust Borer on Goldenrod   Groundhog

Lake Somerset

A Delightful Dog Day Afternoon

Happy are cicadas' lives,They all have voiceless wives.

Dog Day Cicada

So goes the saying (though probably only known by bug enthusiasts!), but as I walked along the paths at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge's East Pond, I wondered about the female cicadas' point of view.  The males' songs were deafening!

This pleased me to no end.  Back around July 4th I noted the first cicada song outside my apartment window, but all summer the neighborhood has been eerily silent.  Cicadas are one of my favorite insects, and their tunes provide the perfect summer soundtrack.  I do not have an answer yet on my locals, but clearly the Jamaica Bay cicadas are happy and active.

Not as newsworthy as their relatives -- the Periodical Cicadas, with the groovy genus name of Magicicada -- our usual summer friends are commonly called Dog Day or Annual Cicadas.  At least 75 cicada species are found in North America; our yearly locals fall into the Tibicen genus.  According to both experience and one of my favorite books, Garden Insects of North America by Whitney Cranshaw, cicadas are more often heard than seen. 

Except this time.

Dog Day Cicada

Walking along the trails towards the East Pond enjoying their song, I noticed one high up in a tree.  Then another, and another, so many closer to eye level, buzzing around my head back and forth to branches.  It was like a cicada Lollapalooza!  The birds weren't so cooperative that day, but the cicadas more than made up for it.

As inferred by the poem, cicada song is the male's domain and his way to attract a mate.  The sound is made by a percussion-like ribbed membrane called a tymbal found on each side of the thorax or abdomen, and activated by a large muscle.  The song is then amplified in the air-filled abdomen.

What a treat to see this in action, and I was thrilled to try out the video function in my camera.  Click on the video below to see a single cicada and later, two starting to mate (and dropping on me -- notice my surprise!).  Apologies in advance though: still learning the video feature on my camera so it's a little fuzzy, but you'll still get the general idea:

While watching all the cicadas literally dripping from the trees, I noticed that wing flicking motion that you can see in the video.  The flicking is followed by the rattling abdomen and song, leading me to think that these are males.  However, as I researched this behavior online (sigh ... most research dealt with the perennial favorite, the Periodical Cicada), one site indicated that wing flicking is a female behavior.  Clearly not from the video -- both are flicking wings. Perhaps both males and females participate in this action to ... um ... say "Hello"...?

Ah, science and nature.  When one observation leads to a hundred questions!

Cicadas are sometimes incorrectly called locust, an unfair nickname since not only are they in completely different insect orders (locust, such as grasshoppers, are in Orthoptera, while cicadas are in Hemiptera) but also are much less damaging than ravenous, chewing grasshoppers.  Cicadas tap into tree branches and twigs with their sucking mouth parts and feed on fluid from the tree's xylem, the tissues that conduct water and nutrients throughout the plant.

After mating, the female deposits eggs into tree bark with a needle-like organ called an ovipositor (again, damage is usually minor).  Nymphs, or immature cicadas sans wings, will emerge from eggs then drop to the soil and bury themselves in, sucking sap from tree roots.  Once mature, they will emerge from their nymphal exoskeleton as a mature -- winged -- cicada and the cycle begins again.  Dog Day Cicadas take 2-5 years to develop from egg to adult.

When it comes down to it, there's really nothing better than these summer friends.  They're attractive, don't bite, cause minimal damage that is not even noticeable, and continue the natural food chain by becoming a meal for several bird species.

And who doesn't like an insect that can carry a tune for our lazy summer afternoons?

Dog Day Cicada

Mother's Day Nature Safari

Appropriate that this Mother’s Day weekend, I found myself taking in an Annapolis nature safari with mom, the person responsible for instilling an appreciation of the outdoors since I was a very small child.

While the Annapolis area has numerous parks with woodland and wetland habitats, time limited us to the nearby Quiet Waters Parkand surrounding waterways.  Run by Anne Arundel County, this park encompasses 340 acres with not only the traditional recreational park amenities but also heavenly hardwood forests and wetlands.

The park includes over 6 miles of asphalt paving for easy walking and bike riding, but give yourself a treat and veer off to the unbeaten path – a myriad of footpaths that afford a deeper view of the woods and vistas nestled between the South River and Harness Creek.

Before striking out on these trails, we stopped by the canoe and kayak launch where rentals are available (note to self: take advantage of this on the next visit).  We chatted with the fellow manning the office who pointed out the spot where a large black snake would slither up the low shrubs to sun bathe most afternoons.          

No luck on the snake, but a brief walk along the dock turned up a lovely little creature sunning itself in the spring light and later identified as a Broad-headed Skink (Eumeces laticeps), my first skink ever!         

Bird song joined us on the entire walk and I longed for a better understanding of all those trills and chirps, particularly since the birds were high, high up in the trees and out of sight.  In spite of this, we were able to pull out a few songs like those of a Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia), Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), along with the high-pitched calls of nearby nesting Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) which were particularly active as they prepared nests on man-made platforms and buoys.  Near the water, Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) buzzed around our heads as they collected mud to build nests.

Blooms were giving way to bright green foliage as trees leafed out, but we spotted flowers of the Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) and had a special treat of Jack-in-the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) wildflowers.  Raised growths (galls) on leaves are common on a woodland walk, but we were shocked to see a huge gall on an oak leaf.

Insects were equally cooperative including Swamp Darner dragonflies (Epiaeschna heros) and the spectacular Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexgutata).  As we walked along the remote path up a steep hill, mom spoke of coyotes that have been spotted in the area, but the only mammalian life we happened upon was a charming family of Eastern Cottontail Rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) enjoying spring greens in a nearby backyard.

Although I would have enjoyed seeing more birds, there was no doubt that this was a particularly productive nature walk with vistas, fauna, and flora.  Yet, I could not get one thing out of my mind – that snake by the boat launch. 

As we rounded out of the woods back to the pavement and headed towards the car, dreaming of cold water and lunch, Bill -- my mom’s husband who is still a woodland Kentucky boy at heart – stopped cold.  At his feet laid a 3-foot long snake that was just as startled.  It lay perfectly still for several minutes with its body kinked in a near zigzag pattern.  Without even a flick of the tongue, I was able to lie down and get within a couple feet for some quick photos.  The snake’s stillness was concerning so we were relieved when it simply “woke up” from its trance and scooted back into the woods.  I’ve now identified it as the Black Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta), a non-venomous constrictor that can reach up to 8 feet long.  That trance along with the body stance is a defense mechanism.       

Black Rat Snake

Birds, plants, snakes, beetles, and dragonflies -- brings back childhood memories of those early walks with mom, making for a special day!    


Delightful spring walk at Queens Botanical Garden

CatkinsI have committed a terrible faux pas in the blog word -- I broke my promise to myself of making a weekly post on Mondays.  Dear Readers, I don't think there are many of you at this point, but apologies anyway, and I'll behave in the future! Moving on to this week's topic:  I am, like many others, pining for a proper spring day.  Between our recent chilly air, rain, and wind, the promise of sun and pleasant temps lured me outside yesterday to probably my favorite spot for botanical beauty and all that comes with the package: Queens Botanical Garden.  Trust me, I work there and happily visit on a day off, so it must be worth it!

Magnolia     Daffodil Fly on Scillia

I was hardly disappointed.  Tulips and daffodils are flourishing, magnolias are in full flower, and trees are showing little green spots that will soon expand to full leaves.  I saw my first little fly of the season, and the Gray Squirrels looked like they were enjoying the weather just as much as I.  Oh, and the birds!  I spotted a new species for my QBG birding list -- Tufted Titmouse (though common and most certainly a regular, it was my first spotting at the Garden).  Plus our little Kildeers have returned and laid four eggs!

Kildeer      Gray squirrel

Took a hike into a densely wooded area and found a QBG favorite -- the Ring-necked Pheasants -- while Dark-eyed Juncos scattered into the brush.  The Northern Flicker was out and about but alas, he was feeling shy and I only got a fleeting photo.  Chipping Sparrows, though timid while having a snack in the Parking Garden, were more cooperative as was the Ruby-crowned Kinglet in the Woodland Garden (sorry, no photo as it was just too dark).

Ring-necked Pheasant     Chipping Sparrow

But my big treat beyond simply enjoying a walk were the two Hermit Thrush who posed on the Woodland railing for a moment before diving back into the thicket.

Hermit Thrush     Hermit Thrush

Onward spring!