Wednesday, December 26, 2012


American Kestrels (revised with new links and photos)
© Dave Spier

They're easiest to see when they sit on power lines and watch the grass below. In the absence of these utility perches, they may simply turn into the wind and hover on beating wings. Oil droplets coating the bird's eyes filter out haze and glare. Retinas, each packed with a million light-collecting cells, give it vision eight times better than a human's. Theoretically they could see a mouse from the top of the Empire State Building. After prey is spotted, the hawk drops like a stone and reaches out with needle-sharp talons. I've also heard of them gliding downhill and grabbing a mouse running across the snow, a most foolish thing for rodents to do. This maneuver caught the attention of two crows which gave chase, causing the kestrel to drop its prey. Undaunted, the hawk circled back and retrieved its fallen victim.

The American Kestrel, Falco sparverius, was once known as the sparrow hawk, a name derived from its habit of eating small songbirds, but in reality these comprise only one-third of the hawk's winter diet. On an annual basis, mice and other small rodents, plus a few frogs and reptiles represent a much larger proportion of its intake. During warm weather it eats primarily insects, and late in summer the kestrel dines almost exclusively on juicy grasshoppers which are plentiful and easy to catch. This earned the bird the nickname "grasshopper hawk" from early ornithologists. Kestrels also eat crickets, cicadas, moths, beetles and ants. Small snakes are readily dispatched, but large snakes present a problem if they wrap themselves around the bird's legs. Small roadkills, and songbirds that fly into windows, are a source of easy meals.

Kestrels are the smallest members of the falcon family, a group that is no longer considered close relatives of the true hawks. Male kestrels are nine inches long while the larger females may reach 12 inches. On average they're about the size of a robin or blue jay which makes all these birds vulnerable to larger winged predators, especially Cooper's Hawks. On the other hand, kestrels will not tolerate competitors in their hunting territory and have been known to chase off larger, but less agile, raptors like the redtail. The falcon family also includes the kestrel's larger and more famous cousin, the Peregrine, which is uncommon in the northern Finger Lakes Region of New York.

If you're close enough, kestrels are easy to recognize. In addition to small size, on a white face look for bold black marks creating a "mustache" and "sideburns." Males have gray wings and rusty-red tails ending with a black band and white feather tips. Females are mostly rufous-brown with fine cross-barring on the back, wings and tail. The lighter undersides of both are spotted, giving way to white under the tail. The wings and tail are relatively long, much like the larger harriers which also hunt the open countryside. (Harriers, also displaying sexual plumage dimorphism, are in a different family.) Unlike harriers, falcons are noted for flying with pointed wingtips, an advantage for faster speed. Peregrine falcons, which can reach a diving speed of 200 mph, are the fastest animals on earth.

Kestrels are year-round residents throughout New York and most of the United States, and a summer breeder across much of Canada and the northern Great Plains states. You can find an interactive range map on eBird under Explore Data -> Range...Maps.

Kestrels nest in tree cavities, often taking over old woodpecker holes, but the cutting of dead trees for firewood results in a shortage of natural nesting cavities. Fortunately, kestrels readily take to large nest boxes erected specifically for the purpose. The size should be at least eight inches square inside and 15 inches tall with a three-inch entrance hole centered three inches below the top. Mount it at least 10 feet above the ground. As controllers of insect and mouse populations, kestrels are valuable to gardeners and farmers, and nest boxes are one way to encourage their presence.

For more information, visit All About Birds.

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at or connect through my Facebook page and photo page. Other nature and geology topics can be found on the parallel blogs Adirondack Naturalist and Heading Out. There's also a community-type page for The Northeast Naturalist.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012


It's been a good year for redpolls. Every few years there's an irruption of winter finches from Canada when their food resources are scarce up north.
I'm in Upstate New York, and here they hang out with the goldfinches. In fact, they’re related to goldfinches (in the sense that both are in the finch family). They’re about the same shape and size and they eat the same kinds of seeds, but there it ends. Redpolls resemble streaky sparrows with a red cap and black around the bill and the males have an added raspberry wash on the breast. Winter brings them to New York from northern Canada and this is about as far south as they normally need to go. These are tough little birds.

Although they seem perfectly at home in the bushes near our feeders, the redpoll’s natural preference is open fields and patches of weeds. They’re more likely to appear in alternate years or irregularly when seed production from spruce and birch trees across northern Canada and Alaska is reduced. Redpolls also eat the seeds of willows and alders. When they're on the snow under our feeders, they're picking up sunflower seeds dropped by the other birds.

To make it through long, cold nights, redpolls have evolved a version of the crop, a throat pouch (on the esophagus) where a supply of seeds can be stored. After finding a sheltered perch, usually in a conifer, and then fluffing up their dense feathers for added insulation, they slowly digest the stored seeds at their leisure. The combination of food and fluff maintains a core body temperature of 105ยบ F. This allows redpolls to survive colder temperatures than other songbirds.

During the summer they are abundant in boreal forests and open tundra around the subarctic regions of both North America and Eurasia.

Ornithologists, the people who study birds, still can’t decide how many redpoll species exist. At the moment, there are two. The Common Redpoll, Carduelis flammea, is the bird normally seen at winter feeders and traveling in flocks across fields. The rarer Hoary Redpoll, Carduelis hornemanni, is generally lighter in color, giving it a "frosted" appearance, hence the name hoary. Due to individual variations, there is almost an overlap between the two types of redpolls, and some ornithologists believe there is just one species with a number of races. Perhaps DNA studies will help to sort this.

For a small finch that weighs less than an ounce, the redpoll has wonderful adaptations that allow it to survive the toughest winters, not to mention unpredictable summers in its far northern homeland. The next time you’re feeling cold, remember the bird that finds warmth in Upstate New York winters.

For an interactive range map of the Common Redpoll, visit the eBird website and zoom in to your location. Recent report locations (within the past 30 days) are coded red. You also can set a custom date range to find recent reports.

Corrections, questions and suggestions are always welcome at or connect through my Facebook page and photo page. There is a separate community-type page for The Northeast Naturalist. Other nature and geology topics can be found on the parallel blogs Adirondack Naturalist and Heading Out.

Thursday, December 13, 2012


© Dave Spier
"Mudhen," "chicken of the marsh," and "water guinea" are just a few of the many nicknames for a dark bird with a white bill commonly found on area waters. Birders know it as American Coot (Fulica americana), as in "crazy as a coot." The poor bird gets no respect.

In the winter, look for coots on bays, saltmarshes, lakes or canals wherever there is enough open water for them to get a long, running start to become airborne. This includes the Pacifc coast from British Columbia south to Panama, then east across the southern states and up the eastern seaboard to Cape Cod. An eBird bar chart for any county or location (which lists all of the bird species reported and their seasonal distribution, i.e. when to expect them) will show if and when the coot has been present. (If you're in the coot's normal winter range and there is a gap the 3rd week in December, I'll bet it's an oversight because birders are too busy Christmas shopping instead of scoping local waterways.) Make a note; if you see a coot the third week of December, let me know and I'll help you submit the observation to eBird!

Coots have dark-gray bodies and nearly-black heads which contrast sharply with white bills. The adult's eyes are bright red. The legs are green and their long toes have lobed edges to help them swim. They usually travel in flocks and sometimes you can find a raft of several hundred coots swimming together.

Although they may hang around with ducks, a coot's body structure is quite different. The bill is somewhat chicken-like and the feet lack webs between the toes. Coots are related to cranes (but much smaller) and to rails, as in "skinny as a rail," but plumper. (Rails are secretive marsh birds laterally compressed for slipping through cattails and reeds. By now, they've gone south for the winter.)

Coots are primarily vegetarians. They will dive for underwater plants or pluck at plants in a marsh. Another preferred feeding tactic is to steal plants from other coots or ducks. (More on All About Birds...)

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at or connect on my Facebook pages - Dave Spier (photographic naturalist) and my personal page. There is now a community page for The Northeast Naturalist.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Golden-crowned Kinglet

© Dave Spier

Okay, it's a lousy photo. Normally I would delete it and go on, but it brings up an interesting point about birding. I was walking the trail beside the Canandaigua Outlet in Three Mills Park northwest of Phelps, NY. The weather was overcast and birds in the tree tops were mere silhouettes at best. A small, nervous bird, constantly on the move, caught my attention. It acted like a kinglet, and I might have passed it off as a Ruby-crowned, the expected species (although I'd use "kinglet sp." for eBird, or maybe "passerine sp." because I wasn't even sure it was a kinglet). I managed a few shots with the flash on, but most were basically under-the-rear-end views, not much help in ID'ing. I did get lucky with what turned out to be a side view and an out-of-focus or blurred head/front shot, although I didn't realize it until I was leaving the park and bumped into another birder. We looked at the photos and voila, a Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa), the first for this park according to the eBird bar chart.

I always carry a camera, except maybe in the yard when I'm doing other things. It's not my biggest lens, but something manageable (a 300mm + 1.4x), and it's mounted on a gunstock with a strap so I can carry it on my shoulder and whip it into position at a moment's notice. I now make a habit of keeping an external flash on the camera, even though it makes it more difficult to use if I'm wearing a hat (usually a baseball-style camo cap). A small, compact point-and-shoot camera with a long zoom might be a better solution, but I don't have one. Besides, my light-weight T2i (DSLR) is highly responsive and, when I do things right, gives sharp, low-noise photos.

Kinglets are tiny gray birds with olive-green touches and a lighter belly. The golden-crown is named for a yellow streak outlined in black on the top of the head. This is accented with a white stripe above the eye and bill. The similar Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) has a gray head, white eye-ring and under the best of conditions, a red patch on the crown of the male. Learn more on the All About Birds website which has photos, voice recordings and a range map. There's also a range map on eBird, but there are gaps in the Canadian coverage due to fewer birders.

The Golden-crowned Kinglet was unexpected because it prefers conifers, and there are none in the park. Its breeding range spans the Canadian boreal forest all the way to the Rockies and the Pacific. There's a year-round range down the west coast and an eastern year-round range from the Canadian Maritimes down through the Appalachians. Most of the continental U.S. is potential winter range. I have seen this species in deciduous trees, but usually there are conifers within sight. (This was also the case in our yard, where we have a mix of both deciduous and "evergreens," on the one occasion that a golden-crowned stopped on its way through.)

female Ruby-crowned Kinglet (October, in our yard) for comparison

Three Mills is a small Ontario County park, not much more than a few acres of wooded floodplain along a major creek in the northern Finger Lakes region of New York. However, for its relatively small size, it's a gem with a variety of good bird habitats. It was donated by the Ontario County Federation of Sportsman's Clubs and mainly provides fishing access - until more birders discover it. The flowing creek stays open during the winter and attracts waterfowl, including Common Mergansers. I also drive the nearby roads, particularly Falkey Road along the south bank of the creek. The fields just to the south and along Stryker Road sometimes have Snow Buntings in the winter.

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at or connect on Facebook (two pages for Dave Spier, personal and photo, and The Northeast Naturalist).

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Evening Grosbeaks

© Dave Spier

Natural food shortages (of the bird kind) are encouraging Canadian finches to head south for the winter. One of the most colorful is the Evening Grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus), somewhat resembling a giant goldfinch, which is not too far off, since they are related. Goldfinches are five inches long (slightly shorter than a chickadee), whereas these grosbeaks are eight inches.

The male Evening Grosbeak [photo above] is very noticeable with white patches contrasting against otherwise black wings and short, black tail. His body is burnt-gold (yellow) grading to a dark-brown head with yellow forehead and wavy line above the eye. Females [below right] are subdued, with mostly gray on the body and head. The only yellow is confined to her neck. Both sexes have massive, pale-colored bills.

Grosbeaks eat mainly seeds, nuts, berries and buds, and they readily come to feeders (if they're around). We had eight Evening Grosbeaks for several days right after Hurricane Sandy and then they vanished in their nomadic fashion. Three returned briefly and a week later, there were four down the road. Unpredictable is a good way to describe this bird.

As always, you can find photos, range map and voice recordings on the All About Birds website. In addition, find current range information on the eBird Range-and-Point-Maps under Explore Data. Use the search boxes to see a range map for this (or any) species you type and then zoom in to your location. You can narrow the date span with the "Custom Date Range" tool or look for any possible sightings in your area by using the Location tool. Write to me for specific information and links. I also encourage you to submit your own sightings. This is how I keep track of their wanderings in my neighborhood, and the information benefits science.

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at or connect on Facebook (Dave Spier, or my photographic naturalist page, plus The Northeast Naturalist).

There's more information from the ABA regarding Evening Grosbeaks and the connection to spruce budworm in their breeding range [mainly the Canadian boreal forest].

Wednesday, October 31, 2012


© Dave Spier

Sounds like a Halloween shrub, but this "witch" comes from Middle English wiche (from Old English wice) meaning "bendable" and was applied to the Wych Elm. Colonists, not being botanists, transferred the name to the American shrub because the branches were used as divining rods, also called "witching sticks" (to find underground water or precious metals) in the fashion of flexible elm and hazel twigs in England. American Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is superficially similar to hazel, especially the leaves.

Witch-hazel is unusual in that it blossoms in the fall. It's yellow flowers with straggly petals are hidden until the wavy-edged, golden leaves drop. The flowers may persist into winter, giving the shrub the nickname "winterbloom." 

At the same time as flowers appear, last year's fruits are maturing. The oily seed interiors are edible and supposedly taste like pistachios. Warm weather will cause the capsules to "explode," a neat trick of nature to disperse the seeds away from the parent's shade. The same thing will happen if you bring the twigs inside.
Witch-hazel long has been used as an external astringent to treat sores, acne, hemorrhoids, insect bites and poison ivy among other things. The Iroquois made a strong tea to treat dysentery, coughs and colds. The bark contains the highst concentration of hamamelitannin, one of the active ingredients. Proanthocyandin extracts have anti-viral properties and reduce inflammation. [Do not try this at home without researching the details, or consult with your doctor.]

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at or connect on my two Facebook pages. There is now a community page for The Northeast Naturalist. [links below]

Sunday, September 16, 2012


Bur-marigolds at the Montezuma Audubon Center, Savannah, NY, in September

Check your local damp meadows and marsh edges for a golden haze of beautiful, yellow, native wildflowers called bur-marigolds (Bidens species). Resembling small sunflowers, the bright-yellow flowers have an average of eight rays around a central disk. Not surprisingly both the sunflower and bur-marigold are in the Aster (or Composite) family.

Two species may occur in New York. The Showy, or Larger, Bur-marigold (B. laevis) has rays longer than a half inch and flower heads up to two inches in diameter. This species is found mainly from California across the lower (southern) states, and locally into the Midwest and also New York along the Lake Ontario plain. Apparently it's also widespread along the East Coast to Massachusetts.  A second species, Nodding Bur-marigold (Bidens cernua) has smaller yellow flowers that nod as they ripen.  It is widespread across Canada and the continental states except the Southeast and it's the more-likely species in New York, especially the Finger Lakes Region. Both species have opposite leaves that are narrow, long-pointed and toothed along the margins. The leaves of B. cernua are sessile (stalkless) and hug the often-rough stems.  B. laevis is smooth-stemmed with leaves that narrow (taper) at the base. The Finger Lakes Native Plant Society has an excellent species profile on their website.

Bur-marigolds also are known as beggar-ticks and stick-tights, referring to the sharply three-pronged seeds [achenes] that stick to clothes as you brush by a ripe plant.  The numerous seeds are eaten by upland and aquatic birds.

Additional reference:
Newcomb's Wildflower Guide, by Lawrence Newcomb and Gordon Morrison (© 1977), published by Little, Brown & Co.

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at or you can connect through my Facebook page at Dave Spier (photographic naturalist) or my personal page, Dave Spier with the profile photo of me birding through a spotting scope. There's a new Fb page for The Northeast Naturalist.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Flowering Rush

At first glance, the individual flowers resemble lilies, and that wouldn't be too far off. Lilies and Flowering Rush (Butomus umbellatus) are both monocots, meaning that their seeds sprout with one initial "seed-leaf" and not two like dicots. The flower heads of Flowering Rush resemble those of chives and onions which makes perfect sense because onions are really lilies. The clusters are in arrangements called umbels (think "umbrella"); all of the flower stems radiate fom a single point at the top of the main, cylindrical stalk. Queen Anne's Lace (Wild Carrot) flowers also grow in umbels, but that plant is a dicot with deeply-dissected, feather-veined leaves.

The leaves of Flowering Rush are narrow, long-pointed and sword-like with parallel leaf veins, again similar to chives and other dicots, but it's somewhat misleading because Flowering Rush is in a plant family of its own. (In fact it's the only genus and species in that family.) It's capable of growing to a height of five feet, under the right conditions, with leaves up to 40 inches long. Most of the time it grows more in the one to four-foot height range.

Flowering Rush is an alien growing on muddy shores along the St. Lawrence Seaway and it has spread to Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes and beyond. It's a Eurasian species brought here as an ornamental in the early 1900's, and it continues to spread from Vermont to Washington and adjacent Canada.

The flowers are rather attractive with three pink and white petals alternating with three smaller pink sepals. In the center are nine pink-and-white male stamens in a radial pattern around six magenta female pistils.

Like all invasive species, it competes with desirable native wetland species, and once started, Flowering Rush is hard to irradicate because the trailing rhizomes spread under the mud and pea-sized bulbils detach, disperse in the water and quickly germinate into new plants. Varieties of this plant growing in the east also produce seeds that can spread on water currents.

There are many desirable native substitutes for Flowering Rush, including Sweet-flag, Northern Blue-flag, Pickerelweed, Giant Bur-reed, Lake Sedge, and Hardstem Bulrush. Blue-flag and Pickerelweed are attractive personal favorites.

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at or you can connect through my Facebook page at Dave Spier (photographic naturalist) or my personal page, Dave Spier with the profile photo of me birding through a spotting scope. There's a new Fb page for The Northeast Naturalist.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Marsh Wrens

As a group, wrens are small, noisy, brown birds that often hold their short tails upright.  Their bills are thin and curve down to a point for picking and eating insects and spiders.  The House Wren is the most familiar; it is plain brown and nests in tree cavities or nest boxes, often in proximity to human dwellings.

Its cousin, the Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris) lives – where else – in cattail marshes.  Its gurgling, rattling trill can be heard any time of day or night.  (If you think you might have heard this wren, you can listen to a recording of its song on the All About Birds website.)  On rare occasions when it perches on a cattail top in the open, you’ll notice a dark cap and light line above the eye.

During breeding season, nests are lashed to vegetation and sometimes hidden in shrubs.  Construction includes a woven dome of grasses and sedges with the entrance on side.

The Marsh Wren population is declining in the east, but increasing in the west.  Major differences in the two subspecies’ songs may indicate two separate species.  The combined winter range extends along the Gulf coast into the Southwest and down through all of Mexico.  A year-round population hugs the east coast from the Mason-Dixon line [the Pennsylvania/Maryland border] south to Florida. During migration, a Marsh Wren can stop in any of the lower 48 states.

The Marsh Wren photo was taken September 3rd from the dike separating the two main impoundments at the Montezuma Audubon Center north of Savannah, New York, where they can be heard, and sometimes seen, throughout the late spring, summer and early fall. You can get an idea of their seasonal distribution (and all the other species) in the Wetlands Complex by looking at the eBird bar chart for Wayne and Seneca Counties, New York.

On Saturday, September 29, there will be an organized canoe trip in the Montezuma Wetlands Complex from 2 pm – 4:30 pm.  Join the Montezuma Audubon Center’s Teacher-Naturalist, Frank Morehouse to explore the Seneca River along Howland’s Island, New York.   Learn about the birds and other wildlife of the area on a leisurely paddle.   There is a fee; canoes, paddles and life jackets will be provided (and binoculars if needed).   Bring water and snacks.   Pre-registration is required by calling (315) 365-3588 or email for details. The MAC website is

Canoeing the Seneca River around Howland's Island, New York (file photo taken July 9th)  - © Dave Spier

Corrections, comments, questions and suggestions are always welcome at  and on Facebook and The Northeast Naturalist.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


M.A.R.S.H. --© Dave Spier

MARSH stands for the Montezuma Alliance for the Restoration of Species and Habitats, a group of volunteers that does everything from removing invasive species to planting new trees.  The next events, scheduled for September 12th, 15th and 22nd from 9 am to 1 pm, will be devoted to collecting ripe seeds from a variety of wetland plants including Arrowhead (a.k.a. "duck potato"), Pickerelweed and Bur-reed.  These species, along with bulrushes and cattails, create a habitat called an emergent marsh.

The seeds will be collected at the Seneca Meadows Wetland Preserve on Black Brook Road, which runs south from Rt. 318 (east of the four corners at Magee) and ends in Seneca Falls, New York. After drying, the seeds will be used to restore habitats on the Northern Montezuma Wildlife Management Area in the Town of Savannah, Wayne County, NY.  The MARSH volunteers are sponsored by the Friends of the Montezuma Wetlands Complex. To sign up, click their website link. BTW, lunch is provided.

The Seneca Meadows website includes a drop-down menu with a description of the trails and a PDF map link.  The I Love the Finger Lakes website has an excellent profile of both the wetlands preserve and the education center.

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at or connect through my Facebook nature page and photo page. Other nature and geology topics can be found on the parallel blogs Adirondack Naturalist and Heading Out.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Least "Mudpiper"

Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) at Montezuma N.W.R., NY on May 13 - © Dave Spier (#D045935)

What's in a name? Take the compound word "sandpiper." Sand refers to the beach where these shorebirds are often found. The Lake Ontario shoreline of New York quickly comes to mind. Piper refers to the sound made by some species, although it's more of a peep. There's a group of small sandpipers, all similar in appearance, collectively nicknamed "peeps," in reference to their voices. Among these, the smallest is the Least Sandpiper, Calidris minutilla. Not only is it the smallest to pass through New York, it is the smallest shorebird in the world.

Least Sandpipers begin showing up in New York's Finger Lakes Region in April, peak through May, then decline in June and early July as the last of the birds fly to the Canadian tundra to nest and breed. Early migrants that failed to nest begin returning in early July and this reverse flow continues to build through the summer, peaks in September and trails off to end abruptly before November. The eBird bar chart for Wayne and Seneca Counties (NY) will illustrate this - but you can create a chart for any state or county you choose.

Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) at Montezuma N.W.R., NY on May 18 - © Dave Spier (#D029504)

Most of our eastern birds seem to winter along the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Florida, or across the Gulf coast south into Mexico and northern South America.  You can see the entire eBird range map for Least Sandpipers (or any species) on the Explore Data page.

Dark feathers with buffy or rusty edges give sandpipers a scaly appearance on the back and wings. The belly is usually white while the head, neck and chest are various shades of brown. The black bill, used to probe for food, is longer and thinner than the bills of songbirds. Most small sandpipers have black legs, but here is the one distinguishing feature of least's; their legs are yellowish or greenish-yellow.

Least "mudpiper" at Montezuma N.W.R., NY on May 18 - © Dave Spier (#D029488)

The length of a shorebird's bill determines its feeding style and diet. A very short bill, like that of a Semipalmated Plover, limits it to feeding on the surface. At the other extreme, very long bills like those of snipe, dowitchers and curlews, allow them to probe deeply into mud. Inbetween are most of the sandpipers which probe to a shallow depth and capture aquatic invertebrates like insects, small crustaceans, worms, and mollusks such as small clams and mussels. The Least Sandpiper prefers to feed on mudflats giving it the nickname "mud peep." Does that mean we should change its name to the least mudpiper?

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at or connect through my Facebook page or photo page or Linked-in. Other nature and geology topics can be found on the parallel blogs Adirondack Naturalist and Heading Out.  For more information on the Finger Lakes region, visit

The photo below is a migrating Least Sandpiper on the Lake Onatrio shore at Charlotte Beach (a.k.a. Ontario Beach Park), Rochester, NY on September 18 - © Dave Spier (#1148-13 scanned from a slide)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Bald-faced Hornets

This is an insect you want to know in order to avoid it.  When they're out collecting food, I can get fairly close without upsetting them, and by moving in slowly I've gotten some decent macro shots of hornets scraping the pulp of fallen pears on the ground.  Fruit juice seems to be a favorite food of adults.

Bald-faced Hornets (Vespula maculata) are related to Yellowjackets, Paper Wasps and Potter Wasps in the family Vespidae.  At a more general scale, they are in the order Hymenoptera with bees, ants, ichneumons and other wasps.  Hornets are large and black with white markings on the face, body [thorax] and tip of the tail [abdomen].  

Only the queens overwinter.  In the spring each survivor starts a small nest with one layer of cells an inch or two in diameter.  As the new workers emerge, they take over nest building and add larger tiers [layers of cells] underneath, then cover these with an outer, gray, paper-like material made from wood pulp.  The round-topped nest usually hangs from a branch, but I've also found them close to the ground in bushes.  In fact there's one next to the trail around my property and I've had to flag and "close" that section so the grandkids don't use it.  As the nest expands, it tapers toward the bottom where the entrance/exit hole is located.  Hornets are most dangerous when you are close to their nest. Unlike bees, hornets can sting repeatedly.
In late summer, the males emerge to mate with future queens.  As temperatures dip well below freezing in the fall, the males die along with the female workers and old queens and any immature larvae still in the nest.  Young queens spend the winter underground or in deep leaf litter.

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at  Also you can connect through my Facebook photo page at Dave Spier (photographic naturalist) or my personal page, Dave Spier (northeast naturalist).

Sunday, August 19, 2012


pollen-producing male ragweed flowers on spike-like racemes
photographed with Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro

       The weather segment of the local evening news sometimes gives the pollen  information for allergy sufferers. The other night I noticed that the "Tree" and "Grass" categories were absent, but "Weeds" were high, with ragweed and Artemisia (mugwort) listed as the main culprits.

        It's the peak of allergy season for ragweed victims, and according to weed ecologists, the problem is getting worse. Increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and warmer temperatures are producing a bumper crop and higher-than-normal pollen counts. In other words, global warming is having an immediate impact close to home. Each large ragweed plant is capable of producing a billion pollen grains over the course of its flowering period and they all travel on the wind or a breeze.

Common Ragweed is also known as bitterweed, carrot-weed, tassel-weed and hayfever-weed (probably the most appropriate of them all). Its Latin name is Ambrosia artemisiifolia. Ambrosia now refers to the mythic food of Greek gods that allowed them to live forever, but originally it meant simply "immortal." This is probably a testimonial to the tenacity of a weed that's almost impossible to irradicate, except perhaps on a temporary local basis. The second (specific) part of its scientific name indicates its relationship, both in appearance and genetics, to Artemisia, the genus of wormwoods and mugworts. They all are prolific powdery-pollen producers in the Aster (Daisy) Family. The relationship is based on technical characteristics of the flowers, even though these particular species lack showy petals because there's no need to attract insects for pollination.

Ragweed flower detail cropped from 100mm macro shot at 1.6x
[allowing for sensor-size scale] and using a flash
against natural sky background while shielding from the wind

Instead, the wind does the pollinating. The tiny bell-like flowers have green hoods covering the yellowish male stamens. On ragweed, these blossoms are lined up along the top of the stem in a spike-like raceme. (See the opening photo.) Female flowers are even less conspicuous and grow in the leaf axils where the leaves attach to the main stem. The green leaves themselves are deeply dissected and remotely fern-like.

Common Ragweed leaf photographed with 100mm macro
after creating a shadow to hide the background

During the winter, persistent ragweed seeds -- rich in oil -- are eaten by a number of resident songbirds and upland game birds.  To humans, the seeds are bitter tasting, hence the alternate name bitterweed.  In the summer, a few ragweeds may be eaten by the caterpillars of several butterfly and moth species.

Ragweed is an annual plant that grows in disturbed ground and road shoulders.  It goes through its entire life cycle in one growing season and then dies.  From the human perspective its useless if not outright obnoxious and undesirable.  From an ecological point of view, it is a native pioneer plant that colonizes bare patches of ground after some sort of disturbance, either natural or manmade.

        Ragweed's miniscule arrowhead-shaped seeds are covered with spines that cling to any passing animal brushing by the ripe plant. Eventually they drop off and a few may land in suitably dry, sunny or partly-shaded locations.

        By contrast, dandelion and thistle seeds arrive on the wind. Goldenrod seeds have smaller fuzzy "parachutes" and travel shorter distances.  The weeds stabilize the soil and reduce erosion, paving the way for shrubs to move in.  Eventually trees gain a foothold and given enough time, a forest will regenerate itself in what was once an open field.  By then the annual ragweeds and perennial goldenrods are long gone.  They lost out in the battle for sunlight.

        Goldenrods often get blamed for allergies because they flower at the same time in the same habitats as ragweeds and mugworts, but their pollen is sticky and heavier.  Goldenrods require insects for pollination, not wind.  There's more on my Goldenrod blog.

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at  Other articles can be found on a parallel blog at  More nature photos can be found at

A small Common Ragweed plant; they can grow much larger and more prolific of pollen!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Wildflower photos request

(This is not an image for the project.
See the links for actual examples.)

Wildflower photos request (pass along) - sorry, no pay

Do you like to photograph northeastern wildflowers and can accurately identify what you find?  This project is not for pro's because there is no pay, but I pass it along in case you're interested.  The company, MyNature Apps, is requesting help in creating a digital identification guide, and there is more info on their website and more examples posted in latest their blog.

Here are some of the Wildflower App photo guidelines:

1. To repeat, there's no pay for images -- just a personal credit page for each person who contributes over 25 species. This will be featured with your own write up and a photo of you -- kind of a "meet the photographer" page. Your name will also be listed on a seperate credits page with a list of species you contributed. Your name or copyright should not appear on the image.

2. All wildflowers of the Northeast and East based on Newcomb's Wildflower Guide (plus any regional species not in the guide) are needed, but please check the current master list of species already "collected" (and updated weekly) to avoid duplication. The final goal involves roughly 1200 species, of which approximately 260 species have been photographed (as of 8/14/12).

3. Submit a complete set of vertical images at one time, i.e. no partial sets. (Otherwise, it's a logistical nightmare.) What's needed for each species are the following: the species' leaf (closeup), flower head (closeup) and whole-plant profile. (The whole-plant profile is an image of the entire plant from ground level up to the tip.) Multiple images of leaves are needed if they vary. For compound leaves include the whole leaf plus a separate image of a leaflet. For species with racemes, spikes, panicles, cymes, umbels, corymbs, and whorls, include images of the whole flower cluster plus images of an individual flower in that cluster. You can have as many images as you want for each plant feature. If there are 5 different leaf configurations on one plant you can have an image of each. Likewise you can show a front view of a flower, a side view... whatever makes the ID process easier. You don't have to be a master photographer but fairly decent.  Seedheads and fruit are not important, but it's okay if a seed pod/head or fruit can be included in an image of the leaf or flower head.  The main objective is to feature the flower and leaf as clearly and large as possible. The leaf is usually the main key in ID'ing. Think of it from the perspective of the end user who may have little (or no) experience with plants; they just want to know what they found.

4. All shots are vertical at a ratio of 2:3 (w:h) and resolution of 8"x12" @ 72 dpi [i.e., 576 x 864 pixels].

5. Diffuse/cloudy lighting is generally best for showing a lot of detail without harsh contrast and shadows in the wrong place.

6. Examples are posted at: with basic information at

I may be able to answer a few questions or pass them along.  Please, serious inquiries only.  There is contact info on the websites, or you can email me first at

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Picris hieracioides

This is an invasive, alien weed and I generally pull it out when I have time. It resembles a tall, multi-headed dandelion with rough-hairy, almost bristly, stems and leaves. Indeed it is a relative and like dandelions, comes from a foreign land. This one is native to the mountains in southern Spain and northern Portugal. In addition to growing in my yard, I find it proliferating along roadsides, often intermingled with its close relative, blue Chicory. The combination is colorfully attractive. All these plants are in the Aster (Daisy) family and generally considered invasive weeds.

I learned it's name as "Hawkweed Picris" from a botany professor, but the rest of the world now seems to call it "Hawkweed Oxtongue." Sorry, that just doesn't have the same ring (or is it just habit)?  The scientific name is Picris hieracioides. The genus name (Picris) comes from a Greek word for bitter, referring to the plant's roots. Members of this genus are called "oxtongues." The species name indicates its close resemblance to hawkweeds, genus Hieracium.

We've described the flowers as dandelion-like, but look closely and notice that the tip of each yellow ray has five "teeth." With age, the blossom becomes a fuzzy seed head. Without adequate sunlight, though, the plant never reaches the flowering stage and remains a basal rosette of leaves (on the ground).

The lower stem leaves are long, lance-shaped and wavy-edged, or they have short teeth separated by scalloped sinuses (see the last images before the photo notes). The upper leaves are shorter, alternate, long arrow-shaped and hug the main stem. Side branches arise from the points of attachment [axils].

Picris is a biennial, taking two years to reach maturity in sunny, open yards, fields and roadsides, and sometimes it survives another year or two as a short-lived perennial. It is related to Chicory (genus Cichorium) and both are in the Chicory subfamily (Cichorioideae).

Picris is found in isolated pockets across the Northeast into Canada, but primarily in New York and Pennsylvania. There is a disconnected invasion, again highly localized, in the Northwest from Washington to Alaska and another in Hawaii.

Photo notes: To make a leaf stand out, cast a shadow into the background. Use a tripod and a cable release [or the self-timer]. After aiming and setting the exposure [manual works best], move to throw your shadow into the background. After taking the shot, check the result and adjust as needed. I've also used notebooks and shirts to create shadows where I need them.
Lenses for this project were the 18-55mm kit lens and 100mm macro on a Canon XT.

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at Connect with me on Facebook. In addition to my personal page (with the Gaillardia flower at the top), there is a photo/artist page, Dave Spier (photographic naturalist).

Thursday, August 9, 2012


Cormorants – © Dave Spier

If you’re a fisherman, “cormorant” is likely a four-letter word.  I suppose there are a few people other than birders who love them, but most probably don’t care one way or the other.

Cormorants are large, dark birds that can be mistaken for geese when flying.  Young birds are pale underneath with an orange bill and face. When swimming, the bill is raised at an angle.  At close range, you can see the small hook on the bill tip.  Nicknamed the “sea-crow” along the coast and “water turkey” inland, the common Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auratus) gets its name from two tufts of feathers on the sides of the head just behind the eyes.  The feathers curl around and meet at the back, but they are often matted down and resemble a bump.

Cormorants are adept at both flying and diving.  Normally these activities require opposite adaptations, such as light-weight versus heavy.  The cormorant has evolved feathers that lack the waterproofing of other diving birds, so they become heavier underwater.  This allows them to submerge and catch fish, their primary diet, but once they’re done feeding, cormorants must find a perch to spread and dry their wings.  It’s common to see them sitting upright on a dock, piling or stump with their wings outstretched.  This is also the reason they must head south for the winter.  Florida and Alaska’s Aleutian Islands are the Double-crested Cormorant’s only year-round range.

Cormorants are widespread across the continental United States with the heaviest concentrations on all the coasts plus the Great Plains, lower Mississippi Valley and Great Lakes.  Check eBird for a current range map.

In some areas their population growth has been explosive which can affect local fisheries and fish farms. Fishermen have blamed them for declines in musky, Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass, Yellow and White Perch, and Walleye.  An old stomach-content survey of cormorants, done over a two-year period in all four seasons, showed the birds predominantly prey on small minnows, including shiners, flatheads and dace.  Directly ingesting game fish amounted to less than 5% of their diet, and that was limited to late summer.  That leaves the potential problem of reducing the bait supply, but in areas like west-central New York, where the water is either weedy or deep, the minnows have plenty of hiding cover.  It’s only along shorelines like the east end of Lake Ontario, where the water is shallow and relatively clear, that there is a real conflict.


Jewelweeds -- © Dave Spier

First off, they're not weeds.  They're attractive native wildflowers. Second, and this is unfortunate, they are not jewels.  The name comes from water's inability to wet the leaves, so after a rain or morning dew, beads of water rest on the surface and scatter light like diamonds.  The plant's alternate name, touch-me-not, refers to the small seed pods that spring open and eject the seeds if you touch them when plump and ripe.

There are two species based on color.The dangling, one-inch flowers [roughly the length and width] of the yellow version, also called Pale Touch-me-not (Impatiens pallida) have a tail-spur that points down.  It's mostly found in limestone regions with alkaline soils and prefers damp locations like wooded flood plains and shady ravines with a steady supply of moisture.

The orange species, a.k.a. Spotted Touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis) is spotted with reddish-brown and the longer spur curves under the tail.  It is normally common and widespread but given its preference for damp ground and ditches, it's struggling this year with the drought.  The ones in my woods have long withered and died.

Impatiens are succulents with translucent green stems.  Crushed leaves and stem juice (particularly from the Orange Jewelweed) are folk remedies for poison ivy rash, insect bites, nettles, minor burns and cuts.

Young shoots in spring and the stems and leaves in summer can be eaten as cooked greens.  Boil in two changes of water and discard the water.

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at or connect through my Facebook page or my photo page.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Cardinal-flower,
Montezuma Audubon Center, Savannah, NY

Cardinal-flower -- © Dave Spier

This native perennial grows wild along streambanks and in swamps and other wet places up and down the eastern half of the U.S., northeast into Canada and south to Columbia. Look for it at the Montezuma Audubon Center (Rt. 89 N, Savannah, NY) where it grows along Crusoe Creek and also around the building where it has been planted to attract hummingbirds. The plant can reach two or three feet in height, making it a nice addition to any garden.

The Cardinal-flower (Lobelia cardinalis) gets its name from the bright-red blossoms hugging the upper stem. (Although sometimes called a spike, it is technically a raceme because of short flower stalks called pedicels.) Look closely at an individual corolla [flower] and you’ll notice three wide lobes forming a lower lip while two narrow lobes extend to the sides like arms. The male and female parts, also scarlet colored, form a narrow tube emerging like a crane above the petals. It looks custom-made to work with hummingbirds!

There was a hummingbird at these Cardinal-flowers when Donna and I first stopped on the boardwalk at Tinker Nature Park (Hansen Nature Center) in Henrietta, NY.

Cardinal-flower leaves are lance-shaped, long-pointed and serrated or toothed on the edges and they alternate on a single, main stalk. The plant contains alkaloids and should be considered toxic, as are other members of the genus Lobelia. In spite of this, Native Americans used root and leaf teas for various ailments. Cardinal-flower and its relative, the blue-violet Great Lobelia (another moist-ground species growing at the MAC) belong to the Lobelia subfamily of the Bluebell family.

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at  Now you can connect through my Facebook photo page at Dave Spier (photographic naturalist) or my personal page, Dave Spier, northeast naturalist

Monday, July 23, 2012

Eastern Kingbirds

Eastern Kingbirds -- © Dave Spier

Eastern Kingbirds are easy to recognize; they are charcoal above, black around the eyes and crown, and white underneath including a white throat. The clincher is a black tail with a white tip. They are smaller than robins and often fly across a field with wings fluttering. If you are familiar with its relative, the phoebe, another type of flycatcher, the kingbird is larger. The Great Crested Flycatcher is about the same size as the kingbird.

Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) show a slight preference for nesting near open wetlands, but can be found in many rural settings with open areas and nearby trees. Given a choice, they favor the edges of ponds, streams and marshes. If there’s an island with trees, this is prime real estate because the water affords protection from four-legged predators. There are no islands at Lock Berlin Park (beside the old Erie Canal in Wayne County, NY), but I found a pair of kingbirds nesting high in a dead tree between the old canal and a small wetland east of the picnic area. The nest was in a fork of the trunk and partly hidden by Virginia Creeper vines.

Lousy photo of a kingbird nest...

Their scientific name, Tyrannus, is the same as tyrant and refers to their aggressive behavior, even toward birds as large as hawks and crows which are potential nest predators. The name "Kingbird" refers to a seldom-seem patch of golden or orangish feathers on the crown. The color resembles flowers and may be used to attract insects which the kingbird eats. The birds are members of the flycatcher family and often hunt from an exposed branch or wire. When an insect buzzes by, the kingbird flies out, grabs it in its beak and returns to the perch or takes it to the nest.

There’s a kingbird in the fields around the Montezuma Audubon Center (Savannah, NY) and it sometimes sits on top of the Purple Martin house to watch for insects. The martins tolerate its presence, but it would do little good to try and chase it. In fact, kingbirds are essentially bullies and have been known to attack other insect-eating birds and steal their prey.

Kingbirds are known to eat over a hundred species of insects. Unfortunately, dragonflies are on their menu. The dragonfly’s nickname, "mosquito hawk," will tell you why we’d prefer them to be left alone. About a third of the kingbird’s diet is from the order Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, flying ants, etc.). The kingbird’s nickname of "bee martin" refers to its habit of hanging around beehives and eating honey bees as fast as they can. Before songbirds became protected, there was a bounty on kingbirds. It turns out that kingbirds eat primarily drones, the stingerless males, with little consequence to the colony. Drones are identified by being darker and larger than worker bees (which can sting).

Eastern Kingbird at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, Seneca Falls, NY.

A quarter of the kingbird’s intake is beetles, including types we consider harmful. Grasshoppers and crickets average 12% of the summer diet. Yes, flycatchers eat flies, but those only amount to 10% or less – little more than appetizers. If there’s a shortage of insects, then frogs, snails and small fish might become prey. Perhaps as a last resort, small fruits and seeds (like wild grapes and pokeberries) are eaten.

The Eastern Kingbird's summer range covers the eastern half of the United States and extends northwest across the upper Plains and Rockies well into Canada.  They are mostly absent from the Southwest. The eBird range map shows a concentration down through the Great Plains.  Migration takes them down through eastern Mexico and Central America to their winter range across a large portion of South America, including the western Amazon, and as far south as the Argentine Pampas. During our winter (South America's summer), kingbirds are much more dependent on eating fruit.

Corrections, and questions always welcome at or connect with me on Facebook and my photo page.