Sunday, April 29, 2012

FOY Birds at the Phillips Preserve

Yesterday morning I returned to the John A. Phillips Open Space Preserve for the third time this year to walk the trails and see if any new migrants had moved in. As I mentioned in previous posts on this site, it is part of the Spotswood Outlier, a portion of Pine Barrens forest that lies 20 miles north of the main body of New Jersey's Pine Barrens. The preserve is heavily forested, mostly with Pitch Pines, though there is a substantial section of oak-beech forest. As one would expect in this sort of habitat, there were many singing Pine Warblers. I also heard a surprisingly high number of Ovenbirds (my first for the year), many Yellow-rumped Warblers, and several Black-and-white Warblers (another year first). One Common Yellowthroat was singing in a swampy area. What the warblers lacked in diversity, they made up for in sheer numbers. I heard Ovenbirds singing during my entire walk.

I had one other year first in the form of a Wood Thrush. This bird did not sing, but it did perch nicely on a branch while I took some pictures of it. Other birds present at the site included Chipping Sparrows, two of whom I saw fighting at the edge of the woods. They chased each other while scolding and then confronted each other in mid-air. Eastern Towhees were also very vocal, though I only heard one or two sing. A few large roaming flocks of Carolina Chickadees did not seem to travel in the company of other species.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Wild Ginger

This brownish-purple flower is wild ginger, which is in bloom right now. There are several species commonly called "wild ginger," but the one native to the eastern United States is Asarum canadense, also known as Canadian snakeroot. The common name refers to the rhizomes, which have a ginger-like scent and were used by early Americans as a substitute for ginger in cooking.

Wild ginger is easy to miss unless you know what to look for. The leaves are large and heart-shaped and grow on hairy stems. The flowers are hidden at the bases of the stems underneath those large leaves. Some flowers rest on the ground or on leaf litter. Wild ginger grows in dense, spreading clumps, so the only way to see the flowers is to push the leaves aside. Here is a line drawing of the principal parts.

The position and color of the flower seem designed to attract the attention of flies that feed on carrion. To a newly-emerged fly, the purplish lump lying on the ground may look like meat. (I did not detect any carrion-like odor, though.) The flies then pollinate the plant as they feed on its pollen. The position also serves to attract ants, which carry off the seeds and thus propagate the plant. Since wild ginger is in the pipevine family, Aristolochiaceae, it serves as an alternative host plant for Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) if pipevine (Aristolochia sp.) is not available.

As you might expect from a member of the pipevine family, wild ginger contains a toxin, in this case aristolochic acid. Whether it is present in sufficient quantity to avoid consumption of this plant seems to be a matter of disagreement. However, it is probably best to use caution, especially since the leaves may cause dermatitis in people who are allergic to them.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Loose Feathers #340

Osprey / USFWS Photo
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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Supporting National Moth Week

As some of you may know, this July 23-29 will be the first National Moth Week in North America. Hopefully this will become an annual event, with participation from around the continent. There are over 10,0o0 species in North America. Many are not well documented, either in their life histories or for their range, and more may remain to be discovered. Some moths are true pests, of clothing, of stored food, or of agriculture, but most are benign, or even beneficial. Moths, and particularly their caterpillars, are an important food source for birds as they migrate and raise their young. Caterpillars may keep plants from proliferating too quickly, and some species help break down leaf litter. Some adult moths, particularly sphinx moths, pollinate plants. Within those 10,000 species there is a tremendous diversity of size, shape, and pattern. Moths range in size from tiny micromoths to large silk moths that could almost fill an adult's hand. Many moths are drab shades of gray and brown, but some are quite colorful, and even the drab ones may show intricate patterns when viewed up close.

I have signed on as a supporter of National Moth Week, which means that I will posting occasional notices and reminders about upcoming events in the next few months. Plus there will be a linked logo over in the right-hand column.

On a related topic, yesterday evening I received a copy of the brand new Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America by David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie. This is the long-awaited replacement for the venerable guide by Charles Covell, which has been out-of-print for years. I will try to post a review as soon as possible. If you are in central New Jersey, there will be an opportunity to meet one of the authors, Seabrooke Leckie, at a moth night in East Brunswick on May 10. If you live too far away for that event, you can see her other book tour stops here.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Spring Birds at Negri-Nepote

Unlike like my last trip to Negri-Nepote, when it was extremely foggy, yesterday was clear and sunny and a bit warm, though not unpleasantly so. A lot of birds were singing near the entrance, including Chipping Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat, and House Wren. Many Tree Swallows were zipping around, but I did not see any other swallow species. At the small pond, there were Killdeer plus three sandpiper species (Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and Least Sandpiper). I heard at least five singing male Grasshopper Sparrows along the paths cutting through the center of the preserve. I was glad to hear these birds again, though unfortunately I did not get a look at any of them. A few Eastern Bluebirds perched on the telephone lines in the middle of the field. Continuing across the fields, I made my way to the woods, where there were some Field and Song Sparrows singing around the edges, as well as an Eastern Phoebe. In the woods were was a lot of activity, mostly from Eastern Towhees and White-throated Sparrows. Near the other side, there was a small flock of warblers that included Palm Warbler , Yellow-rumped Warbler, and my first Northern Parula of the year. As I crossed under the power lines on my way back, I spotted one of the preserve's American Kestrels flying past.

There were a lot of Spring Beauties in and around the woods, especially along the banks of a small stream that flows through the woods.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Loose Feathers #339

Male Greater Sage-Grouse struts for female at a lek / Photo by Jeannie Stafford (USFS)
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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Juvenal's Duskywing

Duskywings are a difficult group of butterflies to sort from each other. Duskywings belong to the family Hesperiidae, i.e., the skippers. Unlike typical skippers they hold their wings spread out at rest (as opposed to the jet plane posture). As the name indicates, duskywings are dull brown, and they have remarkably similar wing markings. Two things point to this being a Juvenal's Duskywing, however. First, the pattern of small white spots, especially on the undersides of the wings, is closer to what would be expected of a Juvenal's Duskywing than similar species. Second, the uppersides of the wings are covered with fine white hairlike scales, a trait that is not true of the very similar Hoarce's Duskywing. In its larval form, this species feeds on oaks. This individual was sipping moisture or minerals at a mud puddle.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Red Maple Samaras

I have posted on Red Maples a few times before, particularly on their spring flowers and fall coloration. This post adds another piece of their life cycle. These are the seed pods of a Red Maple tree. Like other maples, Red Maples have winged seed pods, also known as samaras or maple keys, which aid in dispersal. I photographed the samaras on this tree at Griggstown Grasslands on Saturday.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Autumn Olive in Bloom

As I walked the trails at Griggstown Grasslands on Saturday, I became aware of a lot of bees buzzing around one particular shrub. When I looked more closely at what was drawing their attention, I noticed it was an Autumn Olive in full bloom. The small white flowers had a strong fragrance, almost overwhelming at close range. The Honey Bees visiting the shrub made a constant hum of activity, more so than around nearby blooming trees of other species.

Autumn Olive can be recognized by its long, thin leaves that are dark green on one side and silvery on the other. In the fall, these shrubs bear red berries that are very attractive to wildlife and edible for humans as well. The leaf and berry coloration help distinguish it from the very similar Russian Olive, as explained here.

That attractiveness to wildlife is one of the factors that makes this species so invasive since it is easier for a plant to reproduce if it has insects eager to pollinate it and birds ready to spread its seeds. Another factor is that it is able to fix nitrogen with its roots. This allows it to spread readily in poor soils where other plants struggle to survive. Aside from that, they are also drought resistant and difficult to kill by cutting or fire. Autumn Olive may be an example of an introduction succeeding too well. These shrubs were planted widely in Appalachia to revegetate former strip mines and other disturbed areas because of their tolerance for poor soils. Since then the shrub has spread rapidly and become a seemingly permanent fixture of the landscape.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Eastern Tailed-blue at Griggstown Grasslands

While Eastern Tailed-blue is one of the most common species in my area, it can be a frustrating butterfly to photograph. These butterflies are tiny, which necessitates a very close approach, but they are skittish enough that a close approach is likely to make them take flight. When they do sit, the usually keep their wings folded over their backs, so that the light gray undersides are visible instead of the brilliant blue uppersides.

So yesterday, I was very happy to find some cooperative Eastern Tailed-blues at Griggstown Grasslands. Perhaps the cooler weather had something to do with it, as these individuals preferred to bask in the sun with their wings open. Maybe they reacted a little more slowly to my approach due to the morning chill. Whatever the reason, these butterflies were a treat.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Starting the Lower Raritan Bird Survey

New Jersey Audubon has been running citizen science surveys in various parts of the state. Some have focused on particular habitats, like surveys of grassland birds and shorebirds, and others have focused on regions of the state. This spring, the organization initiated a breeding bird survey along the Lower Raritan River and its watershed, along with a pilot project to track bird migration in the same area. The goals of the project are to create a baseline of bird population data for the watershed and to identify important bird habitat for future protection. I signed up as a volunteer and picked a set of ten points in Raritan Center, an industrial complex in southern Edison that includes a sizable amount of wild or semi-wild wetland and old field habitat. I had been curious about this site for some time, as it is difficult to find such large tracts of minimally-developed land in this part of the state.

Yesterday I completed the first of the 2-3 migration surveys I will be doing at the site. All of the assigned points are accessible, though noise and obstructed sightlines make two of the points particularly challenging. All ten points are in the area covered by the image above, at more or less even spacing from each other.

There were a lot of birds around, and I recorded about ten species during each of the five-minute point counts. The dominant songbird species was Red-winged Blackbird, which I recorded at eight of the ten points. Other frequently-recorded songbird species included Song Sparrow, American Robin, and American Goldfinch. I also saw quite a lot of gulls – mostly Herring Gulls – in flight overhead. I heard Field Sparrows at three points (at one, unfortunately, after the five minutes was up). That was probably my most interesting finding of the day. Three points along the riverfront produced a Northern Harrier (seen only before my five-minute point count started), a nesting pair of Ospreys (again, seen after the five minutes was over), a Green-winged Teal, and four Boat-tailed Grackles, which I was surprised to see so far upstream. I am looking forward to seeing what other species pass through over the next few weeks.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Loose Feathers #338

Migrating Smith's Longspur / Photo by Paul Roisen (USFWS)
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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Eastern Red Columbine

Eastern Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is a perennial wildflower native to eastern North America. Normally, the columbines here bloom in May, but this year there are already blooms appearing in mid-April, almost a month ahead of last year's schedule. The long, tubular flowers of columbines are especially attractive to hummingbirds, which play an important role in their pollination.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Eastern Redbud is a small tree native to the eastern United States. In spring, its branches are covered with tiny pink and purple flowers.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Some violets stayed in bloom through this warm winter, but they are blooming really profusely now.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Whooping Crane Reprieve

Whooping Crane / Photo by Ryan Hagerty (USFWS)
The legal issue that held up Operation Migration's guided Whooping Crane flights in the fall has been resolved, at least for now.
The FAA granted a two-year rule exemption to let Operation Migration pay the pilot of a light sport aircraft to guide baby cranes each fall from Wisconsin to Florida. That’s where the cranes meet up with possible mating partners during the winter.

Cranes were on their way to Florida a few months ago when a former pilot filed a complaint with the FAA – and the government grounded the mission, saying it’s against federal rules to pay ultra-light pilots. But Operation Migration said its pilots were paid for what they did on the ground, and not in the air....

In granting the two-year exemption, the FAA told the group to make some changes. The pilots will need private licenses instead of light-sport craft licenses. And by next year, the planes must be upgraded from experimental light aircraft to a special light craft that more closely resembles a single-engine plane.
Hopefully Operation Migration will be able to put itself onto a safer legal footing so that future flights are not disrupted.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Eastern Pine Elfin

Yesterday at the Phillips Open Space Preserve in Old Bridge, I came across this butterfly fluttering around near the ground. It turned out to be one I had never seen before, Eastern Pine Elfin (Callophrys niphon). It was not very cooperative, so I did not get as clear or as close of an image as I would have liked. There was also a second, similarly-sized butterfly that was likewise unfamiliar, but I never managed to get a photo of it, so I am still not sure what it was.

Elfins are in the family Lycaenidae, along with coppers, hairstreaks, and blues. I think of them as specialized hairstreaks. In fact, they share the genus Callophrys with the green hairstreaks like Juniper Hairstreak. Elfins fly in early spring; in New Jersey this means flight periods ranging from late March through early June.

According to Gochfeld and Burger's Butterflies of New Jersey, Eastern Pine Elfin is common in the Pine Barrens in April and May. The Phillips Preserve is one of the northernmost remnants of Pine Barrens habitat in New Jersey, so it was in appropriate habitat. After mating, female elfins lay their eggs on the new growth of coniferous trees, especially Scrub and Pitch Pine.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Nomada Bee

I found this bee in the backyard yesterday afternoon. It looks outwardly like a wasp, but I think it is actually a cuckoo bee in the genus Nomada. Cuckoo bees are cleptoparasites, which means that they lay their eggs in the nest burrows of other bees, in this case bees in the families Andrenidae and Halictidae. Nomada larvae eat the nectar and pollen gathered by the host for its own offspring. Nomada bees look very similar to wasps, so much so that it is easy to mistake one for the other.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Loose Feathers #337

Eastern Phoebe / Photo by Bill Thompson (USFWS)
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Thursday, April 05, 2012

Mating Hoverflies

Spring brings many things along with warmer temperatures. One of them is a resumption of normal insect activities, including mating. These two hoverflies appear to be Toxomerus geminatus. I was able to identify this insect thanks to a helpful key on BugGuide. Toxomerus is one of the genera in family Syrphidae, the flower flies or syrphid flies. Syrphid flies can often be found nectaring at flowers, and they are important pollinators. Toxomerus larvae have been recorded feeding on corn pollen.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012


Tulips are also coming into bloom. Like the other flowers, they are about a week or two ahead of schedule.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Grape Hyacinths

Grape Hyacinth is an introduced exotic plant that blooms in the spring and has short racemes of bell-like flowers.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

More on Neonicotinoid Pesticides

In the last week, there has been a lot of coverage on what effects pesticides have on bees, between the release of a Xerces Society report and the publication of two studies on the issue in Science. This is an important and complex issue because of the economic importance of bees and other pollinators and because of the interaction between pesticides and other environmental issues. Honey bees have been the focus of attention because they are vital to producing so many agricultural products, but many native bee species are also in severe decline, due to pesticides and other causes.

Visit Bug Girl's post on the new bee research to learn more about the problem with neonicotinoid pesticides.