Thursday, August 26, 2010

Summer Doldrums - well, almost!

I can't believe that we're fast approaching the back end of August and I haven't found time to write about July yet! For the birder, mid-summer is certainly a relatively quiet time and this, coupled with the fact that it can become boring after a while having to cope with tourists illegally and very persistently cycling on the wrong side of the road (something I've never witnessed anywhere else in the world so seemingly a Cape May speciality when it comes to lunacy!), would suggest that there's ample time to catch up at home. But the trouble with me is that summer brings out the wild plants and insects and all that other stuff that's out there. So while birders have a breather, I'm still being manic! I've managed to get photos of some 450 species of plants here so far so maybe I'll find time to post some pictures up sooner rather than later. For now, here's a quick summary of early July's highlights from my wildlife diary.

July 1st
A quiet start to the month as it was a work day, but a lunch time walk around one of my favourite ponds turned up a nice surprise for me in the shape of a Four-spotted Pennant. This is a dragonfly that I wasn't expecting to see as I hadn't heard it mentioned by any of the local wildlife folk, but it occurs regularly in small numbers here, where it is at the very northern limit of its range. In New Jersey, the species has only been recorded from Cape May and Cumberland county and is very local here, but it occurs with some regularity at ponds down here near Cape May Point and I found several pairs in tandem with the females egg-laying.

Male Four-spotted Pennant - a well-named species!

July 4th
As I'm now living in the USA, I of course have to mention Independence Day! Actually, it was a great day for many of us down here for another reason as our good friend Scott recently reached his 40th birthday so a great crowd of us gathered today for one of Scott's 'Specials'. He's an amazing cook (always great people to know!) and he turned out an amazing spit roast, roasting a whole suckling pig and serving up on Michael and Louise's porch - what a day!

July 5th
The sun beat down on my head from an almost cloudless sky; I wanted shade, but I knew that if I moved, I would be spotted and the dramas playing out before me would come to a sudden end. From my lofty position, a group of hunters had gathered and were lying in wait beneath me. Their prey needed to get into the area to feed, but each time one tried, a predator would break ranks and dart for it. If they were too slow, they would soon be eaten; a short distance in front of me another drama was playing out. A single large predator had cornered a number of its prey and had them penned in; periodically it made sudden, startlingly dramatic lunges to take out one of its victims. Finally, to my right another lone predator, this time a prowler, stalking very slowly, at times motionless, at other times creeping forward inch by inch, ever in search of its prey which it was trying to ambush from within dense vegetation.

So where was I? The Serengeti? The Maasai Mara? Nope - this was lunch time on one of the little metal bridges at The Nature Conservancy's Migratory Bird Refuge off Sunset Boulevard. The first scenario wasn't a line of crocodiles waiting for wildebeast to cross the river, it was a line of Green Sunfish, waiting for any opportunity to grab the pairs of Common Bluet damselflies that were trying to lay eggs in the area. The second scenario saw a single large fish, the water just too murky to determine exactly what it was, hunting minnows in the shallows; finally, the third scenario involved all the stealth and guile of a Northern Water Snake as it patrolled for sticklebacks amongst submerged waterweed.

Green Sunfish lying in wait for lunch

The hunters become the hunted. Tandem pairs of Familiar Bluets have to run the gauntlet of the local fish population if they want to ensure that their species survives. More often than not, it is the damsels that are doing the hunting.

A Northern Water Snake pauses for air during its underwater sorties. Water snakes can often be seen hunting fish and can hold their breath for several minutes at a time.

 Sometimes - especially when it's hot - it's good to just sit and watch from a suitable vantage point and it's amazing what you can see. The various hunting strategies taking place at a single small bridge in Cape May just shows how nature has found a way to fill every niche, to take advantage of every opportunity. You don't have to go to Africa to see nature red in tooth and claw - and you don't have to be David Attenborough to witness it first hand!

July 6th
Things are starting to happen back at the point it seems; after a lengthy period with no rain, many of the pools are now low in water and the muddy edges are rich in juicy benthic invertebrates (that's all the little things that live in ooze!). I stopped in at Bunker Pond before work and managed to get there in time to see two Gull-billed Terns that Scott had reported.

This pair of Gull-billed Terns breezed in and out of Bunker Pond a number of times but seldom stayed for long and were easily missed if you didn't just happen to be close by.

A nice array of shorebirds was there too and the season's first returning Short-billed Dowitchers were busy seeking out a breakfast of tasty water creatures, plying through the water with a methodical sewing machine action with their bills. Meanwhile, two Greater Yellowlegs were more actively seeking small fish in the shallows.

Short-billed Dowitchers winging in to Bunker Pond

July 8th
Well who would have thunk! After going the whole spring period listening to the near-deafening chorus of Spring Peepers without ever get even the briefest glimpse of one, Megan chanced upon one which had been attracted to our back door light after dark in search of an insect meal. Clearly it never pays to give up!

A Spring Peeper at our back door - who would have thought that a frog so small could make such an almighty din!

Another view of the Spring Peeper, showing the hallmark dark X on the back

July 9th
Today's highlight was certainly most unexpected as I spent most of the day at home while the builders got stuck into putting the walls in for our new bathroom. In the afternoon, I needed to run out to the shops for a few things, so took the opportunity to walk around a nice area of rough scrub and wetland which is right next to the shops - always handy! Dragonflies abounded and Seaside Dragonlets were super abundant, giving me the opportunity to photograph a number of females in their various colour forms. But the unexpected treat here was a nice White-lined Sphinx (hawkmoth to us Brits) which was quite approachable and probably only recently emerged.

White-lined Sphinx - a nice reward for me for doing the shopping!

July 10th
For the first time in months, we had a proper drop of rain today to alleviate the sweltering heat that was building up. It rained for most of the afternoon and at least meant I could skip watering can duties for a day! Somewhat annoyingly though, we had a barbecue to go to in the evening but, ever resourceful, our friend and host Shawn made good use of his spacious double garage and barbecued in the dry! Luckily it brightened in the evening and we took a turn around the garden for some wildlife viewing. The day had started really well too, as a Green Heron flew over our back garden and a number of other birds showed up around the house including a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, a party of five Orchard Orioles which were most likely a local family group, plus a pair of Blue Grosbeaks which searched avidly through the copious amount of Wild Carrot flowering in our meadow at present. What was interesting is that two juvenile Brown-headed Cowbirds accompanied the grosbeaks and almost certainly these two were raised by the grosbeaks, as cowbirds are brood parasites like Common Cuckoos, laying their eggs in other birds nests and leaving the hosts to do the parenting. It was certainly noticeable that the young cowbirds not only stuck closely to the pair of Blue Grosbeaks, but also seemed to mirror exactly their foraging and feeding behaviour.

July 11th
A quiet day at work, but in the evening after dark, I thought I heard something rummaging around outside. Grabbing the torch I crept round the side of the garage and there was the masked bandit who had been pinching our juicy white mulberries! A Raccoon was caught in the act, though he thought that if he hid his eyes behind a leaf we wouldn't be able to see him!

Ronnie Raccoon goes large - I wouldn't mind if he just asked first!!

July 12th
Today was a day that would clearly demonstrate that nature is finely-tuned, seemingly always on a knife-edge and easily tipped over the edge (that's probably enough metaphors for now I think!). We had noticed a steadily-increasing gathering of Laughing Gulls over Lake Lily in front of the store during the afternoon of the 11th but didn't think anything of it. A couple of locals stopped in to say they had never seen such a gathering over the lake before and what did it mean. I had been saying that they were probably responding to a ready food supply - perhaps an insect hatch of some sort, but this morning the truth was clear. I got out of my car to be hit by a whiffy, fishy stench and a glance at the lake revealed water-lily pads where there had not been any the day before. A closer look showed these lily pads to actually be fish, floating side up at the surface and all dead. Hundreds of fish and no clear reason why.

Dead and dying fish clutter the surface of Lake Lily

We called New Jersey DEP to get them to take samples for testing; meanwhile, the local community organised a clean up and did a very thorough job over the following 36 hours. Oxygen starvation was considered the most likely cause and this was confirmed a few weeks later, though with added complications. Initially it was thought that the long run of hot weather probably caused this (though we doubted this was the whole story as it had been cooler for a couple of days prior to this happening) and it was probably complicit. But the experts considered that the confirmed oxygen shortage was more likely due to an increase in other gases in the water as a result of a mass die-off of submerged vegetation which had been treated with an aquatic herbicide; in addition, the recent rains may well have washed potentially harmful chemicals off nearby properties (house-proud locals here are far more prone to dumping poisons on their lawns than us Brits) which probably also compounded the issue. All in all, an unfortunate combination of three unrelated incidents, any one of which, in isolation, probably wouldn't have been a problem, but together proved just too much for the ecosystem - which now of course needs time to recover.

Bluegill - a common fish around Cape May in still, freshwater

Largemouth Bass are native further west in North America but have been widely introduced for fishing purposes throughout the continent. This and the Bluegill constituted the vast majority of dead fish at Lake Lily.

July 14th
The changeable weather continues, with more rain today, but such conditions get the migrants moving and shorebirds continue to headline the bird show that is taking place daily at Bunker Pond as water levels remain low - though creeping back up a little at present. At lunch time, the Migratory Bird Refuge had a marked increase in Least Sandpipers with at least 30 scurrying around on the dry mud. A Spotted Sandpiper and a few Short-billed Dowitchers were in the wetter east side and a Whimbrel flew overhead, calling. Herons are starting to move now too and I totted up three Green and five Great Blue Herons durng the course of the day.

Shot against the light so a bit grainy after I tweeked the picture a little, but at least you can see that it's a Whimbrel - though the classic lack of a white rump which distinguishes this form from European Whimbrels is sadly not visible here.

July 15th
Songbirds are showing evidence of movement now, with three Yellow Warblers feeding in our rose patch today and two Brown Thrashers also appeared which I don't think were local to us as I haven't seen any for some time.

July 17th
Tony and I put our exploring shoes on today and headed north into the great outdoors. We took a tip-off and went to see a small cluster of Crested Fringed Orchids not far from the county airport and also chanced across a nice population of Red-banded Hairstreaks feeding on the sweet-smelling pepperbush flowers. This proved to be a really nice spot which we returned to a couple more times later in the summer.

Crested Fringed Orchid - a gem that is fast disappearing from Cape May and may well soon disappear for good from the county.

An awful picture, taken in a dark forest! This female Mocha Emerald constitutes the third record for Cape May county of this species - my mate Tony beat me to it with two earlier this year! Note the peg-like ovipositor near the end of the abdomen and the brownish cast to the wings.

Surely a garden escape?! But no, American Turk's-cap Lily is native here and grows here and there in sunny glades.

Another Turk's-cap shot. Sadly the flowers are short-lived and it was pure chance that we timed the discovery of this colony just right.

Later we headed into the north of the county and explored some fabulous sphagnum bogs. Sadly this habitat will soon be lost in Cape May county it seems as no habitat management is currently carried out. The sphagnum bogs mostly occur in old commercial cranberry bogs but now that harvesting has stopped, the areas are not managed and scrub encroachment is rapidly threatening them all. An all too familiar story...

Sphagnum bog in Cape May County - a naturalists heaven!!

Dion Skipper feeding at Carolina Redroot - both classic acid bog species. Note the skippers long, black tongue reaching into the tubular flowers for nectar.

I know that Elfin Skimmer has featured just recently but they're just too great to resist!

I did manage to photograph a female Elfin Skimmer this time - all 0.8 inches of it!

One of the very special plants of the acid bogs here is Golden Crest, a widespread but localised member of the Lily family. We found some quite large stands of plants that had finished flowering, but the silky white stems and heads of fruiting bodies looked great when viewed against the light.

Miraculously, we found just one plant of Golden Crest with a single flower still out!

Pause for reflection... American White Water-lily

Bugging Out
Just to finish off, here's a collection of buggy pictures to enjoy - some are good reasons to go out to the woods, some are good reasons to stay at home and bolt the door!

Numbers of Spicebush Swallowtails are now really starting to increase and will peak in August. This is one of the commonest butterfly species in Cape May and can be seen throughout the county during the summer months.

Ah, they're just great! Dragonflies simply swarm through Cape May during the summer giving some great photographic opportunities. This female Needham's Skimmer posed beautifully for me against a rich green backdrop that set her off fabulously.

OK, back indoors, quick!! Common Grass Spiders are very common around Cape May and make obvious webs, often out in the open on lawns (hence the English name). They are related to the funnel-web spiders and make a similar web, with a flat sheet radiating out from a tunnel of silk within which they hide and wait for struggling prey to set off the trigger lines. This is one of the biggest spider species in Cape May - but harmless, honest!

Talking of swarming.... If you look carefully you can see at least seven mosquitoes hard at work on this poor little chap! You can also tell from the size of the mozzies on his head that this is a real baby Box Tortoise with a lot of growing to do.

Another summer swarmer - Lone Star Tick. Once you get your eye in, you can spot ticks waiting on the grass stems to latch onto any passing moving object. Notice how the front legs are posed to grab on. Ticks are certainly a good reason to avoid the woods in summer, but they can be avoided if you're careful.

Revenge can be sweet - if a little harsh at times perhaps! We were getting particularly pestered by Deer Flies one day and Tony managed to swat one; we offered it up to some predatory Water Striders in a trackside puddle and this one jumped on it with glee! Note the sucking, needle-like proboscis of the Water Strider. I'm also always amazed at the gaudy patterns of the eyes of these biting flies.

Another lethal predator who's on our side! There are dozens of robber fly species to sort our here, many very difficult or impossible to identify in the field. This hairy-faced chap (or chapess) is Promachus rufipes. Robber flies are voracious predators of other insect species and are very common throughout the summer here.

Let's finish on a high note! A great way to interact with butterflies - like this Dun Skipper - is to offer them some mineral salts to enjoy. I licked the tip of a finger and offered it to this skipper and he was over the moon!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Here Be Dragons!!

Bird activity tails off at Cape May Point as the heady days of summer settle upon the place. Breeding birds get on with raising young and the regular migration hotspots become tourist venues for a while. As temperatures soared into the 90s fahrenheit, some of us spent much of our time further north in the county, where the cool waters of sphagnum bogs await, green and inviting, and far enough off the beaten track to be peaceful and full of wildlife. One of the highlights of these halcyon days for the naturalist at Cape May is the wealth of dragonflies and damselflies to be found with just over 100 species recorded in the county - I don't know the exact figure as new species are still being added; for example, both Tony Leukering and I have independently found Mocha Emerald in the county this year - a species not listed for Cape May in the current New Jersey dragonfly book. So far this year, I've seen 40 species of damsel and dragon in Cape May with another three just outside the county borders (Russet-tipped Clubtail in Atlantic County and both Treetop and Clamp-tipped Emeralds in Cumberland County), with the vast majority being found in the upper third of the county. But Cape May Point is still often where the action is; when the weather is right, thousands of dragonflies move up from the south on a southwesterly high pressure system and so far this summer we have experienced two such events. The first involved Swamp Darners - one of the largest species found here (and hard to photograph as they spend so much time on the wing) - the second influx involved large numbers of Spot-winged Gliders which mostly moved north along the bayshore side of the peninsula. So here's a photo essay of some of the winged dragons that can be enjoyed around here.

Dragonflies appear on the scene in summer as if from nowhere, but look along the edge of waterbodies, on marginal vegetation or sandbanks and you will find mysterious 'dead' creatures that appear to be nothing but a dry husk. These are the exuviae, the dragonfly equivalent of a butterfly's chrysalis. Dragonflies spend one or more years as a nymph - their version of the butterfly's caterpillar stage - and the nymph lives a subaquatic life, breathing through external gills. Once ready to emerge as an adult, the nymph climbs out of the water and moults for the final time. This time, when its outer skin splits, a winged adult emerges - one of the most amazing of natural events. Here, a Swamp Darner is just emerging from its nymphal case. Note the legs tucked up around the body, the tiny yellow wing buds (not yet inflated) and the dark grey-brown case that it's emerging from.

In this picture, the dragonfly's legs are extended and now being used, the wings are starting to expand and turn pale green and only the end of the abdomen remains in the old skin.

Now the adult Swamp Darner is completely free of its old skin.

The wings now extend the full length of the abdomen and are almost completely pumped up. They will eventually lose the green and be completely colourless. Now it's really starting to look like a dragonfly.

The jewelwings are dainty creatures of moving water and are more common in hilly areas than they are in the coastal plain, but this Sparkling Jewelwing was happy enough along the Tuckahoe River. The jewelwings are what we in the UK would call demoiselles.

Spreadwings get their name from the habit of resting with the wings half open - most small damselflies fold the wings back along the body at rest. This Sweetflag Spreadwing is one of several very similar species in Cape May which are best identified by external processes at the tip of the abdomen.

The dancers are fairly large as far as damselflies go and are a very varied lot, with no two species really looking alike. Indeed, this one is known as a Variable Dancer as there are a number of races which differ in general appearance. The local form found in Cape May is also known as Violet Dancer and it really is a great colour for a damsel.

We are still learning a lot about damselflies in Cape May; Double-striped Bluet is not officially recorded from Cape May, but has been found at several sites over the last two years or so. This one near Cape May Court House is about the fifth record for the county. The bluets are all rather similar and hard to tell apart, though this is one of the easier ones, due to the extra blue band on the thorax.

The forktails are all very small, often mostly rather dark in colour and hence easily overlooked. This species is only one inch long and appropriately called Fragile Forktail.

Some of the forktails are more colourful, such as the female Liliypad Forktail which comes in either a blue or a red form. I had to wade out into a lake to photograph this species as they like to hunt from lilypads away from the shoreline. Note the down-turned tip to the abdomen which is a good identification feature.

The sprites are tiny - around one inch long - and so thin that you wouldn't think that any food could pass through! This is a tandem pair of Sphagnum Sprites - don't ask, dragonfly mating strategies are just far too weird!!

Like many insects, dragonflies have compound eyes, made up of a multitude of hexagonal lenses. The Purple Martins at Cape May Point State Park feed on large numbers of dragonflies and often drop unwanted scraps near the nest colony. The abandoned head of a Swamp Darner gave me an opportunity to take this close-up picture of one of its eyes.

The darners include some of the largest of Cape May's dragonflies, many of which are hard to photograph as they spend the bulk of their time on the wing. However, this Harlequin Darner (actually one of the smallest darners) obligingly landed on a house wall and let me take a nice series of photographs.

Another large species - and thus difficult to squeeze into a picture! - the Common Sanddragon usually hunts from or near the ground in the manner of a skimmer. It has a distinctive black abdomen with creamy yellow spots.

The emeralds are perhaps the hardest group of all to get to grips with as they NEVER seem to land!! We had to resort to netting a few to get some photos, after which they were set free again. This close up shot of the front end from above of a male Treetop Emerald shows the fabulous emerald green eyes of this group.

Seaside Dragonlet - a great name for a great little dragonfly. One of the smallest dragonflies in Cape May, this is a very common and widespread species throughout the summer and is often the only species seen around saltmarsh habitats. Males are black or dark blue, but females are very variable; some are similar to the males, some have orange-yellow bodies and others (such as here) have dark blotches on the wings.

Talking of small - this one holds the record in Cape May! Elfin Skimmers are a mere 0.8inches long - smaller than most of the damselfies! This makes them very hard to find, but they are out there to be found if you spend enough time looking. This male is sat on a bladderwort flower in typical sphagnum bog habitat. Despite their size, Elfin Skimmers hunt in exactly the same manner as other skimmers, sallying out from a vantage point to take prey in flight.

Another small species, Eastern Amberwings are very common and especially so down around Cape May Point. They hunt close to water from a handy perch - this one was hunting along a stand of flowering White Melilot, having worked out that the flowers were attracting many insects.

Dragonflies are essentially mean, killing machines and will take on anything that passes if they think they'll get away with it. Here, a green-bodied female Eastern Pondhawk is eating a Calico Pennant - a species that is roughly the same size as it!

I've featured the spotty-winged pennants found around the point in an earlier post but this is a scarce one in Cape May county, the Double-ringed Pennant. Unlike other pennants, this species has unmarked wings.

Spot-winged Gliders periodically occur in their thousands around Cape May and are another species that doesn't perch much. This one was on drift wood at Sunset Beach and had probably just arrived after crossing the Delaware Bay, so was taking a well-earned rest. This is a rather odd-shaped dragonfly, which makes it easy to identify in flight. It always looks too thick and heavy at the front end, stubby at the back and has a bright red face and eyes which stand out when one is flying towards you.

Needham's Skimmer is a fabulous golden beast with the colour extending out along the front edge of the wings. There are several skimmers, all of which perch conspicuously and hunt from open vantage points. Most are quite easily approached too, making them good photographic subjects.

The males of many of the skimmers are blue-bodied and several species are quite similar. The Bar-winged Skimmer can be identified by the obvious, short black band along the leading edge of each wing.