Saturday, June 30, 2012

Butterflies on Milkweeds

Butterflies on Milkweeds -- © Dave Spier

As a followup to the previous blog, here is a selection of four butterfly species sipping nectar from Common Milkweed flowers.

Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele)

(Eastern) Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes asterius)

(Eastern) Tiger Swallowtail (Pterourus glaucus glaucus)

(Eastern) Tiger Swallowtail (Pterourus glaucus glaucus)

Monarch (Danaus plexippus plexippus)

As always, corrections, comments and questions welcome at

Friday, June 29, 2012

Milkweed Flowers

Milkweed Flowers -- © Dave Spier

The Common Milkweeds (Asclepias syriaca) are in full blossom now. The slightly drooping clusters of pink flowers form fragrant balls on numerous plants growing in fields and alongside country roads. This beautiful wildflower is native to much of southern Canada and the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. (except Florida).

Milkweeds are worth keeping at the sunny back edge of a yard because of its importance to Monarch butterflies. Eggs are laid under the leaves so the caterpillars have a ready source of food. By ingesting the toxic, white sap (containing cardiac glycosides), they acquire a defense against predators (mainly birds).

The Common Milkweed's clusters of pink flowers are attractive, but long roots make it hard to control in a decorative garden. The perennial plant is best grown in a specialized butterfly garden. A close relative, the Butterflyweed, has gorgeous orange flowers and does well in dry, sunny locations and sandy soil.

The milkweed's flowers are also important in supporting large numbers of native bees, including bumblebees, as well as non-native honeybees. Pollinators need a variety of native plants in order to get all of the nutrients they require. Large mono-culture (single-crop) fields provide only a partial source.

For the autumn perspective on the milkweed plant and more information on its uses, see the blog archives for November 15, 2011.

As always, I'm at

Saturday, June 23, 2012


Catbirds -- © Dave Spier

While many neotropical migrant birds are declining in population, a few hardy American species are doing well and perhaps expanding. One species in particular has adapted to human landscaping, assuming you have at least a scattering of trees and shrubs around your yard.

More likely to be heard than seen, its song is what I call jibberish -- a random assortment of notes and calls with no discernable pattern. Occasionally it will imitate portions of other bird calls, and that explains why it is one of three members of the Mimic Family. The most famous member is the mockingbird which precisely copies other bird songs (and other sounds, even frogs and sirens) and repeats them three or four times before moving on to a new sound. The second member of the mimics is the Brown Thrasher, now an uncommon bird in this part of New York. The thrasher sings each song twice and then moves on. The Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis), on the other hand, says everything once, although it eventually returns to the same phrases in random order. Very little of its rambling repertoire is actual mimicry, although I have to be careful when he throws in pieces from a Wood Thrush. The catbird gets its name from its cat-like "meow." There have been times when I mistook it for a real cat.

Catbird singing from a dead maple (otherwise favored by the woodpeckers)
behind our garage.

At least one catbird likes our overgrown back yard, even though I keep portions mowed and maintain a wide trail inside the perimeter. I've been doing a lot of yard work and gardening and the bird seems to be getting used to me. It will "sing" from a nearby branch, sometimes out in the open. It's coloration is mostly dark gray with a black cap and some rusty red under the black tail. I guess this helps it blend into the shadows. Its tail is proportionately longer than most songbirds. Males and females are nearly identical. They're about the size of a robin but more slender.

The mulberries are just starting to turn from pink to red. If last year is any indication, when they begin to darken further, the catbird will start checking to see if any are ripe. Fruits and berries make up half their diet. The catbird in the opening photo has what looks like a Juneberry, most likely from the tree on the property line with our neighbors. The other half of their diet is insects, especially grasshoppers, crickets, and beetles. One or two catbirds may linger in the area through the fall into early winter if berries are plentiful. Once it gets really cold, the stragglers head for the Atlantic coast and piedmont east of the Appalachians. Some go as far as Florida and the Gulf coast.

One of my oldest photos, scanned from a slide taken in the early 70's when I got serious about birding. -- all 3 photos © Dave Spier

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Red Admiral update

Red Admiral update -- © Dave Spier

I had forgotten about the massive spring migration of Red Admirals until June 14 when I noticed a very tattered and faded adult on the trunk of a dead Quaking Aspen. I assumed it was something on the order of a lone survivor.

Two days later I received an email from a birding friend describing spiny, jet-black Red Admiral caterpillars with yellow marks on the flanks. They were feeding on Stinging Nettles and a new life cycle was progressing as "planned." He also described a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak eating the caterpillars! (Remember the concept of a food chain?)

Fast-forward three more days and I find a beautifully-colored, fresh adult Red Admiral in the field behind our house, and I was finally able to get a descent shot of the underwing pattern, slightly marred by several leaves in the way.

Corrections, questions and comments always welcome at

Photo notes: both with 70-300 macro zoom at 300mm, 1/200 sec., ISO 400, external 580 flash
tattered adult on aspen - Canon 5D body, f/22, fill flash at -2/3
fresh adult in the shade - XTi body, f/19, flash accidentally set at +1, overexposure corrected by editing RAW capture

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Bee-balm -- © Dave Spier

I’ve discovered a "new" bird species – the yellow-crowned hummingbird. Okay, before the birding community gets too excited, it was just a ruby-throat with pollen on top of its head. While visiting our Bee-balm flowers, the bird’s head was brushing against the stamens and being dusted with yellow grains of pollen. Unwittingly, the hummer would carry this to the next flower where some would reach the pistil (female part of the flower), thus assuring cross-pollination. Isn’t nature clever? By the time I got my camera, the pollen had rubbed or blown off.

Bee-balm (Monarda didyma), also called Oswego Tea, is a bright-scarlet member of the mint family. Related to bergamots, the showy flowers grow in dense whorls at the top of a square stem with opposite pairs of pointed leaves. The leafy bracts under the flower head are also reddish. This native plant grows wild on rich, moist soil, often along wooded stream banks, but it has been tamed for garden use. It’s a favorite nectar source for hummingbirds.

You can make an aromatic tea by steeping fresh or dried leaves and flowers for 10 minutes, or you can mix it with other teas. Enjoy…

If you live or travel in the vicinity of Savannah, NY (southeastern Wayne County), stop at the Montezuma Audubon Center (on the west side of Route 89 about 1.7 miles north of the village) and see how the hummingbird/butterfly garden is doing. The Bee-balm is on the east end of the garden. There’s usually a hummingbird feeder hanging on the wooden fence that hides the propane tank behind the garden. From one of the picnic tables, you can watch both the garden and all of the feeders on the north side of the building.

Do you plant any native flowers for hummingbirds or butterflies? To find out what else we can do to help wildlife, visit Wild Ones or contact me at If you're in central New York, there's a chapter at

Photo notes: Canon 300mm/f4 on 8-mp XT body; exposure = 1/500 sec., f/5.6, ISO 400. Our Bee-balm just started blossoming this year, so I pulled a file photo taken July 5 at 3:44 pm in the afternoon when our garden is still in full sunlight.  Original cropped to 1923 x 1354, then resized for the blog.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

White Admiral

White Admiral -- © Dave Spier

Sounds like a naval officer in dress uniform...

From outward appearances alone, it would be hard to guess that the White Admiral butterfly, Limenitis (= Basilarchia) arthemis arthemis, is closely related to the Viceroy (Limenitis archippus), the Monarch imitator (or mimic). The former is nearly black with a prominent pair of arced white stripes on the wings. The latter is orange with black edges and veins. What they do share are reduced front legs with hairs, hence the family name, Brush-footed Butterflies (Nymphalidae), the largest family of true butterflies. Many members are familiar, partly due to medium or large size, and frequently visit flowers. (See my Red Admiral blog.) Butterflies themselves are sometimes nicknamed "flying flowers."

The White Admiral can be regarded as a northern species. It ranges from Canadian forests south into central New England, then down through the mountains to Pennsylvania and westward to Minnesota. Its southern counterpart is the Red-spotted Purple, essentially the same butterfly without white stripes (probably an evolved trait to avoid predators). For this reason, the White Admiral is sometimes called the Banded Purple. Where the two subspecies overlap from southern Maine to Michigan and Iowa, they freely interbreed.

This White Admiral was on my driveway, not its typical habitat.  All photos © Dave Spier

The White Admiral's preferred habitat is open forests and woodland edges where its larvae feed on Black and Yellow Birch (both of which have a wintergreen flavor, if that matters), plus willows and aspens (both in the willow family), and to a lesser extent hawthorns and maybe shadbushes (with these last two in the rose family). Adults drink nectar, running sap and aphid honeydew or feed on fruit, carrion and dung.

I use my Canon 300mm/f4 like a long macro lens when photographing large insects. [body: Canon XT, exp.: 1/500, 5.6, ISO 400] Personal style preferences include "cloudy" as my default white balance, but it easily can be changed because I shoot RAW.

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Green Herons

Green Heron in the old Erie Canal southeast of Clyde, NY.

Green Herons -- © Dave Spier

For a time, the Green Heron (Butorides virescens) was known as the Little Green Heron, in reference to its relative size, but the joke became “it’s called that because there is so little green on it.”  Green-backed Heron was another name it once held, and that is a little closer to its appearance, but just slightly.  In bright sunlight, the back is dark grayish-green.  Adults are gray underneath with dark rufous (red) necks, streaked throats and dark crowns.  Young birds are more streaked on the neck and throat.  As the birds age, the legs vary from yellow-green to yellow and then finally orange on adults during breeding season.

At 18 inches long, it is small for a heron, but large compared to most birds we see regularly.  It is the length of a crow, but the heron’s wings are much shorter.  Seen flying overhead, on its way to the next swamp or back to its nest, the heron might be mistaken for a crow, but there are subtle differences.  The heron often travels alone in a straight line, deliberately heading for its next destination.  Crows are likely to travel in noisy flocks that swoop and turn as they decide where to go.  I’ve seen only crows harassing and chasing raptors.

Green Heron in the Old Erie Canal at Lock Berlin County Park off Route 31, between Lyons and Clyde.

Being shorter legged than other wading birds, the Green Heron prefers to hunt by walking down a fallen log that dips into the water at the end.  There it crouches and waits for a small fish or sometimes a frog.  The Green Heron is one of a growing list of animals observed using tools (inanimate objects that make a job easier or more efficient).  In the case of the heron, it uses food pellets, cereal, feathers or short sticks dropped on the water to lure fish close enough to catch.  The heron also might be found perched on the branch of a tree overhanging the edge of a stream or pond.  If it sees you first, it retracts its neck until the head seems to touch the shoulders.  Looking like a burl on the limb, the smaller posture helps it hide.  As a last resort, the heron leaps into the air with a loud “kee-ow” or “skow” and flies away.

Most herons nest in colonies, but not the Green.  Each pair nests by itself, sometimes far from water.  One spring, I watched two adults raise their family in the top of a tall spruce plantation about a mile from the river where they went to hunt for food.  I haven’t been back, but assuming they returned to nest again, life probably got easier for them when a pond was built nearby.

Green Heron flying over the Montezuma Audubon Center 
just north of Savannah, NY (in southeastern Wayne County). 
all photos © Dave Spier
Here's the hyperlink mentioned in the first comment:
Corrections, questions and suggestions are always welcome at  For more information on wetland birds in the Montezuma Wetlands Complex and northern  Finger Lakes Region, please visit the Montezuma Birding Trail website and look on the Montezuma birds page.  For information on the Eaton Birding Club that covers Wayne, Seneca, Ontario and Yates Counties, please visit 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Spotted Salamanders

Spotted Salamanders -- © Dave Spier

I was working around the vegetable garden (no surprise there), trying to fix the fence when I lifted one of the old boards that helps suppress the weeds. Resting in one of the small-animal (vole?) runways was a Spotted Salamander, and this was a totally unexpected surprise. It's possible the salamander made these tunnels, but looking at its soft, clawless toes, I wonder how.

This species is famous for its mass migrations on the first spring night with a warm rain, usually in late March, but I always miss that event. The salamanders, like other amphibians, are heading for the nearest woodland pond or vernal pool (essentially a temporary puddle in the woods) to lay their eggs before returning to their damp, daytime hiding spots. Vernal pools lack fish - an important consideration in the survival of larval amphibians. The downside is a race against the pool drying out before the transformation of the larvae to a terrestial form.

The only time I've actually seen Spotted Salamanders in the past was uncovering them in the woods with the help of an expert leader at the Allegany Nature Pilgrimage (always the first weekend after Memorial Day when the holiday crowds are gone). That's where these photos were taken.

The Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) has a wide range from the lower Mississippi Valley to the Canadain Maritimes. Along with ten other eastern species in the genus Ambystoma, this family of amphibians is referred to as the Mole Salamanders because they stay underground most of their lives.

The Spotted is typically around seven inches long with a heavier build than most salamanders. (The record length is almost 10 inches.) Two rows of yellow spots run down the sides of its dark-brown body from head to tail. It has four toes on each front "arm" and five on each leg in back.

At night, it hunts for a variety of invertebrates including slugs and its favorite food, earthworms. Both of these diet items are in abaundance around our garden. Normally Spotted Salamanders live in moist forests where rotting logs, dead bark and leaf litter provide the right habitat for finding food and hiding. Shade from the tree canopy keeps the ground cooler and reduces drying. What's unusual is that our garden is in the open on top of a hill, quite a walk from the swamp forest at the bottom of the drumlin. Oh well, I guess the salamander knows what it's doing.

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Blue Flag

Blue Flag -- © Dave Spier

The Larger Blue Flag, Iris versicolor, or Fleur-de-lis, is the native alternative to the invasive Yellow Iris. These beautiful perennial herbs are cross-fertilized by honeybees, bumblebees and the Syrphid flies that are often mistaken for bees. In return, the iris provides sustenance in the form of nectar for these insects.

The pollen-producing stamens are hidden inside the iris at the base of the three "falls," the drooping, bluish petals with violet veins curving to the yellow runways that lead to the interior. To get inside, the insects crawl under the arching female styles where pollen is dislodged.

Syrphid fly visiting Larger Blue Flag at
Seneca Meadows Wetland Preserve - © Dave Spier

Several small, long-tongued butterflies have "learned" to bypass the pollen trap and go directly to the nectar between the divisions, thus depriving the iris of cross-pollination.

To learn more about native plants and their role in the environment, visit Habitat Gardening in Central New York, a chapter of Wild Ones: Native Plants, Natural Landscapes, or contact me at Also visit the parallel blog for a profile of another wetland species, the Cinnamon Fern.