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.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


Monarch on teasel -- © Dave Spier

Teasel -- © Dave Spier

For all their prickles, one might imagine that teasels are somehow related to thistles, but are in fact in their own family (Dipsacaceae). They were brought to this country from the Mediterranean and used to tease (comb) wool, giving it the nicknames "clothier’s-brush" and "gypsy-comb." After the lilac-colored flowers are gone, the stalks and egg-shaped, pincushion heads remain stiff and withstand all but the heaviest of storms. They can be collected and used throughout the fall and winter, but now their utility seems limited to decoration. I’ve seen them spray-painted gold and added to flower decorations, but I assume the arranger was wearing gloves.

There are two common teasel species, both growing in fields and road edges. Cut-leaved Teasel, Dipsacus laciniatus, has large, opposite leaves that join and clasp around the stem so much they form a cup that holds rain water. (We should be so lucky as to get enough rain this summer.) The genus name is from the Greek word dipsa, meaning "thirst," and refers to the cup effect. The edges of laciniatus leaves are deeply lobed and fingered, hence "lacerated." The second species, Dipsacus sylvestris, has fairly smooth-edged leaves that sometimes barely clasp the main stalk without forming much of a cup.

Although an imported alien species from Eurasia and Africa, the teasel's lavender, or sometimes white, flowers are attractive to humans and butterflies. In the photo a Monarch is carefully drinking nectar from the tiny florets between the prickles.

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

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Squash Bugs

The title can be taken several ways and we'll get to both. The first meaning is the name of a common garden pest, the Squash Bug (Anasa tristis), one of a group of insects referred to as "True Bugs" (the Order Hemiptera, if you need that for Biology class). The term "bug" is casually interchanged with "insect," but might be used to refer to a beetle, grasshopper, fly or moth (all of which are actually separate orders and deserve their own names). As a group, True Bugs have a set of folding hind wings used for flight and, when at rest, these are covered by a set of protective forewings that are membranous at the tips and leathery at the base where they attach to the body. The word Hemiptera means "half wing," as in half-membranous.

Adult Squash Bug showing half-membranous wings -- © Dave Spier

True Bugs also have sucking mouth parts, often shaped like a beak at the front of the head, and here's where they become a nuisance. Squash Bugs suck the juices from the leaves of any gourd plant, including squash, cucumber, melon and pumpkin. 

Adult Squash Bugs mating -- © Dave Spier

After mating, the adults glue clusters of bronze-colored eggs to the undersides of leaves and when these hatch, the young nymphs have a ready made food supply. The powder-blue colored nymphs grow through five stages [instars] as they become more and more adult-like and do more and more damage until the plant's leaves wither and dry to a crisp. They will overwinter under the shelter of dead leaves, so one method of control involves cleaning up all plant remnants and burning or disposing in the trash.

Squash Bug eggs on the underside of a leaf -- © Dave Spier

The other method of control that I employ as an organic gardener is to search-and-destroy by squashing all these particular bugs, eggs and nymphs that I find, hence the second meaning of the title. The adults are 5/8-inch long, gray-brown above, pale below and their wide abdomens can be edged with orange or striped with brown. They have heavy-duty "shoulders" giving a hunched-back appearance.

Young nymph -- © Dave Spier

Older nymph emerging -- © Dave Spier

Corrections, additions and questions are always welcome at, or connect with me on Facebook.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Black Terns

Black Terns -- © Dave Spier

The cattails grew denser and denser. Long poles would have been more effective than paddles as we grabbed clumps of emergent leaves and pulled our canoe deeper into the marsh. We passed an opening at the targeted GPS coordinates, but there was no sign of a nest. "Okay, turn the canoe around," Frank said. Easier said than done. Should have worn chest waders and just gotten out of the canoe. It was more effective to back out.

To shorten the story, we did relocate the "nest." Talk about well camouflaged. Three hard-to-see eggs on a tiny mat of cattail leaves... Another declining bird species has turned up in the Northern Montezuma Wetlands outside of the federal refuge in Seneca County, and we were part of an ongoing state survey. 

Black Tern nest on Howland's Island, part of the Northern Montezuma WMA, Savannah, NY, on July 1.

Black Terns (Chlidonias niger) specialize exclusively in inland freshwater marshes. Most tern species are at least partially coastal and nest in salt marshes. Black Terns utilize cattail marsh openings created by feeding Muskrats and often build their nests on a floating Muskrat feeding platform, usually not much more than a mat of cut leaves an inch or two above the water. This nesting behavior makes them vulnerable to two things: invasive Purple Loosestrife and motor boat wakes. The loosestrife crowds out the cattails forcing the Muskrats to move elsewhere, whereas boat wakes can destroy the nest. Motorized boating is not permitted in the Northern Montezuma Wildlife Management Area and the loosestrife appears to be under control, at least for the moment. The presence of another aquatic plant, bur-reed, is a good indicator of Black Tern nesting potential. Since Black Tern eggs and chicks are preyed upon by Great Blue Herons, choosing a nest site in deeper water (preferably two feet deep) with a thick growth of yellow bladderwort will discourage the long-legged wading birds.

Terns are related to gulls, but have pointed bills for catching small fish. Terns also have forked tails and long, narrow wings. They fly gracefully and hover with bills pointed down when searching for prey. In addition to a few small fish, frogs and crustaceans, Black Terns eat a lot of spiders and insects (such as mayflies, water scorpions, and unfortunately, dragonflies).

Adult Black Terns in breeding plumage are unmistakable. The head and body are charcoal with white undertail coverts and they are uniformly gray across the wings, back and tail. The underwing linings are lighter. Young birds and winter adults have white underneath and white on the forehead and sides of the neck.

Black Terns breed from the lake plains of New York and the upper St. Lawrence Valley westward through the Great Lakes Region, across the upper Great Plains and into the Rockies and Cascades. They winter along the northern coasts of South America and during migration, they can show up anywhere in between. There is also a Eurasian subspecies. For a range map, go to eBird [or look in eBird under "Explore Data," then "Range and Point Maps"]. There is also a generalized map on All About Birds.

Agitated parent as we relocated the floating nest.

Corrections, questions, and comments are always welcome at


July is a slow month for eBird reports. There's a huge swath of counties from the upper great Plains down and across to the Southeast with zero checklists [red on the map] for the month. As eBird approaches its 100 millionth record, they're having a contest [complete checklists only] and it would help greatly to fill in some of the gaps at the same time!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Eastern Pondhawks

female Eastern Pondhawk with eggs emerging below the tail
all photos © Dave Spier

Eastern Pondhawks -- © Dave Spier

One of the more common July dragonflies in the eastern U.S. is the Eastern, or Common, Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis). It likes to hang around ponds with vegetation (such as lily pads and cattails), slow streams and even lakes, or sometimes nearby in fields, roadsides or sunny, open spots. Low plants give them a hunting vantage for their voracious appetites. Dragonflies generally eat smaller insects such as mosquitoes (YES!), but in turn can become prey for birds including Purple Martins and bluebirds.

Female pondhawks are an attractive bright green with three dark, somewhat-rectangular spots down the top of the abdomen (S4-S6) and a mostly-dark tail with white tips (cerci). Juvenile males are nearly identical, then mature into entirely pruinose-blue bodies while maintaining the green face and white cerci.

adult male Eastern Pondhawk -- © Dave Spier

Males defend small territories over shallow water where the females lay their eggs while hovering just above the water. In the opening photo above (taken several years ago at the Montezuma Audubon Center when I was helping with the NYS Odonate survey), you might notice the eggs emerging from under the tail. She will repeatedly dip the tip in the water just enough to release the eggs. After hatching, young dragonflies (called naiads) spend several years growing and hunting on the pond bottom before emerging and transforming into winged adults.

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at   Now you also can connect with me on Facebook. There are several Dave Spier's, so look for the Gaillardia flower at the top of my time-line, or see more of my photos on a new page, Dave Spier (photographic naturalist).

adult male Eastern Pondhawk -- © Dave Spier

adult female Eastern Pondhawk -- © Dave Spier

Facebook photo page:!/pages/Dave-Spier-photographic-naturalist/457719854240996

Monday, July 2, 2012

Cerulean Warblers

Cerulean Warblers © Dave Spier

The Cerulean is an uncommon and vulnerable* warbler that is declining throughout its range in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic region. You can find a range map on eBird, and by zooming in far enough, you can locate actual checklists reporting this species.

The Cerulean's core summer range is soft-coal country – eastern Tennessee and Kentucky, southern West Virginia and Ohio and southwestern Pennsylvania – an area noted for strip mining and mountain-top removal which impacts the mature forests they need for breeding. This species is being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act, and the National Audubon Society has already added the bird to its Watchlist.  

The Cerulean is named for the male's sky-blue color which is set off by white on the throat, belly and wingbars. Black streaks on the flanks, a black "necklace" and black in the wings and tail add contrast. The female is much duller and lacks the distinctive blue. Pale yellow replaces much of the white. Their preferred habitat is deciduous forests with tall trees and open understory like those found in wet bottomlands. Actually seeing the bird is difficult because it feeds and nests in the treetops, higher than most warbler species. You’re more likely to find the bird by its song, a rapid series of buzzy notes leading to a higher trilled note at the end. To listen to a recording, go to All About Birds.

The nest is an open cup made from fibers, grass and hair held together with spider silk. If the first nesting fails, the spider silk is reused in making a new nest. When the female leaves the nest after incubating for a time, she briefly drops like a stone before opening her wings to reduce the chances of attracting attention to the nest. The average clutch of four speckled eggs hatches in less than two weeks.

After breeding season, the Cerulean makes the long trek south through the southern states, flies across the Gulf of Mexico, migrates along the Central American highlands and ends up in its winter home in the evergreen forests of the northern Andes. Over 60% of this winter habitat has been converted from forest to farms and pastures, further impacting the species and adding to its decline. Ceruleans will use shade-grown coffee plantations, so in the interest of bird conservation, please consider buying one of the shade-grown coffee brands. Better yet, choose organic shade-grown if you have a choice.

[*conservation status from IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, code VU]
- - -
I've known about the Cerulean Warblers (Dendroica cerulea) at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge (between Rochester and Syracuse, NY) for some time, but they also live nearby along the Clyde River and Erie Canal in southeastern Wayne County (the Towns of Galen and Savannah). I had stopped to see Dave Odell, retired NYSDEC Region 8 Wildlife Manager, at his Old Duck Inn, a bed & breakfast southeast of Clyde in the Montezuma Wetlands Complex. I wanted to see what birds I might add to a checklist I started for the Montezuma Birding Trail, so I was happy to learn that Dave has been hearing the warblers. His 100-acre farm on Tyre Road extends downhill to the Old Clyde River. The wooded shoreline provides good habitat for this species.

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at For information on the next Montezuma Birding Tour, organized by the Montezuma Audubon Center in Savannah, e-mail

eBird range map:

All About Birds voice: