Monday, April 16, 2012

Juniper Hairstreak

While out in the yard on Sunday, I noticed a bunch of Clouded Sulphurs and Cabbage Whites visiting the various blooming plants. Seeing these common species, I figured that the air was warm enough for the other, less common species to be flying as well. When I headed into the woods, I found a whole bunch of very fresh-looking azures flying low to the ground occasionally stopping on the ground or on a flower. According to David Wright, who has spent many years studying the Celastrina genus, these individuals are likely a second hatching of the Northern Spring Azure (Celastrina lucia) which emerges a week or two after the primary hatch, but before the emergence of the similar "Southern" Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon).

Northern Spring Azure

Farther up in the woods, Juvenal's, Sleepy, and Wild Indigo Duskywings were chasing each other up and down the clearings, making photography of these individuals extremely difficult. These territorial butterflies seemed to be chasing everything, whether it was another butterfly, a bee, or even nothing at all. In the woods, I found several Mourning Cloaks and my first Spicebush Swallowtails of the year. These dark swallowtails are the earliest individuals of a species that will stick around until the fall! Later, I found my first Black Swallowtail of the year visiting the daffodils along the edge of the house.

While watching the larger butterflies, I almost forgot to look down until I noticed a tiny, dark skipper flying through the dried bluestem grass. This little Common Roadside-Skipper finally landed for a second before continuing to flutter along. Despite the name, this species is quite unusual, especially this early in the year. In fact, this is the earliest date I have ever seen a skipper of any kind here in Monroe County, PA!

Common Roadside-Skipper
Closer to the house, I was walking through the field when I spotted a tiny butterfly flying around the top of an Eastern Redcedar. Knowing that there is a very unique butterfly that often exhibits this behavior, I ran over to the small tree and soon spotted the Juniper Hairstreak perched on one of the top branches. Although it was perched at the very top, I got decent looks at the gorgeous butterfly that was also a species I had never seen in the yard before!

Juniper Hairstreak
The preferred habitat for this species is in brushy areas with the host plant. While there are a few redcedars in the field where I found this butterfly, I did not expect the small number to be sufficient to support this species!

The tall, skinny, dark green trees are the redcedars. The tall one in front is where I spotted the hairstreak.

Last July, I led a butterfly walk at Jacobsburg State Park. With ideal habitat at the park, the group was able to see eight of these gorgeous butterflies. These July-flying individuals were actually part of a second brood that emerges during the summer, whereas the current brood likely emerged within the last week.

A close-up of a Juniper Hairstreak from Jacobsburg State Park (July 2011)

My last butterfly of the day was a Red Admiral that was flying low over the trees, apparently headed north. Interestingly, this migratory species seemed to be following the same path, except backwards, that the Monarchs take in the fall. Although I only saw one, some locations in western Pennsylvania saw hundreds of Red Admirals migrating north!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Some New Avian Arrivals

After a week of winds from the north, the southern winds that started on Friday led to some decent migration into this past weekend. I was able to do some birding around the yard today, and sure enough, migration has started back up after a short hiatus. The first new bird was a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher that was feeding on insects in the blooming apple trees. Its nasal call was easy to hear even though the bird was hidden amongst large branches, big flowers, and emerging leaves.

Around midday, I was out on the deck when I noticed a raptor overhead. Raptor migration had been slow, so I was excited to see something other than a Turkey Vulture overhead. When I got my binoculars on the bird, I realized it was the first Broad-winged Hawk of the season! Before long another, and then another appeared overhead. These three raptors were the start of a short flurry of raptor migration that included a good variety of migrating raptors. Two Red-tailed Hawks slowly glided down-ridge while the Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks moved quickly flapping the entire way. Scanning the clouds, I spotted a distant raptor. This high-flying bird turned out to be an Osprey. Without flapping, this bird sailed past with incredible speed moving east along the ridge with little effort. Just after the Osprey disappeared, another raptor, this one taking big, bouncy flaps appeared in the sky. When it was over the yard, this male Northern Harrier circled a few times before continuing on its migratory path.

The raptors were not the only birds on the move! Several Great Blue Herons, followed by a flock of Herring Gulls passed right over the house headed directly north. A little while later, I spotted a group of nine large birds flying towards me. When they got closer, I saw that they had long necks, long beaks, and their feet were extended past the tail. Loons! The group of Common Loons passed low overhead moving on a straight path north.

I ended the day having seen 54 species, which is an excellent total for this early in April. However, in a few weeks, the trees will be filled with singing warblers, orioles, and tanagers as spring migration reaches its peak! Good birding!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Nature Quiz

It is easy to find bird quizzes on the internet, so instead of a bird quiz this time, I have expanded it to other things in nature! For this quiz, all photos were taken in Pennsylvania. Feel free to leave a comment with your IDs!

A Pond Draws in the Birds

We have a pond at the edge of our yard that is quite small and filled with various pond and wetland vegetation. A pond so small may seem like it would not attract many birds, but in fact, this pond has attracted numerous species that may not otherwise spend time on the property. The most common species to visit is the Mallard. During the spring, it is very common to find a pair or two swimming around. There has been a pair of Mallard in the pond every evening and morning for the past few weeks. For some reason, they disappear during the middle of the day!

Recently, Wood Ducks have been spending more and more time in the pond. Just last night, a pair spent a good portion of the evening swimming around and feeding in the pond. The brilliantly-colored male is a wonderful bird to watch, and the female, with her teardrop-shaped eye patch is equally intriguing.

Even herons have stopped by at the pond! I see Great Blue Herons at the water's edge a few times every year and once a Green Heron even stopped by for a little while. While the pond is too deep and not muddy enough for many shorebirds, Solitary Sandpipers don't mind ponds like this one. Occasionally one will spend the day at the pond before continuing on it's migration. I have only ever seen them at the pond during spring migration.

On rare occasions, even kingfishers will land in the trees over and near the pond. However, I've never seen one catch anything from the pond. There are no fish, but there are certainly plenty of Green Frog tadpoles.

This pond goes to show that even a small bit of water can really help birds as a stop over site when they are migrating! For some of these birds, a small, but beneficial habitat is far better than being without food or a habitat that they are used to.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

More Butterflies and a Pair of Racers

It was very windy here today, so most of the butterflies were perched in order to being blown away by the strong gusts. I couldn't find any more elfins today, but some of the other species were very cooperative!

Northern Spring Azures were out in force today, even more so than yesterday! This species is usually very skittish, but this male was clinging to its perch so that it didn't get blown away!

While the azures were numerous, the duskywings were not. I did manage to find this mating pair of Juvenal's Duskywings at the edge of the meadow not far from a single Sleepy Duskywing. When it comes time to lay her eggs, the female will oviposit (lay eggs) on an oak tree. Oaks are the preferred caterpillar host plant for several duskywing species. The Dreamy Duskywing, however, uses a variety of tree and shrub species and the Wild Indigo Duskywing uses wild indigo and crown-vetch.

While I was coming down the path headed back the the house, I spotted two snakes just off the trail. One of these black snakes was curled up and the other was completely stretched out to a length of four feet or more. When I got closer, I noticed that these were two Black Racers enjoying the afternoon sun. When I got too close, the curled-up racer shook its tail against the dry leaves making a sound similar to that of a rattlesnake. This species is similar in appearance to the Black Rat Snake, but the head shape and eye are different. A rat snake has a longer head and the eyes pop out a little giving a "bug-eyed" look compared to the racers.

Just a few weeks ago, I had seen another racer on the property. Unlike the ones from today, this guy was 15 feet up in a tree! This shows another characteristic to separate racers from rat snakes: the mostly black belly; rat snakes have white or speckled undersides.

Friday, April 6, 2012

An Elfin in the Woods

With the fairly warm temperature and plentiful sunshine today, butterflies were active despite the wind. This time of year, I find that woodland clearings are the most productive places to find butterflies, as these areas are often the sunniest spots around. However, some species, like Mourning Cloaks and Eastern Commas do not mind being in the middle of the woods. Other species like the duksywings often "patrol" clearings and paths by flying up and down the length of the opening chasing anything that enters the territory. To an overly sensitive Juvenal's Duskywing, these "threats" may include others of the same species, a larger Mourning Cloak, a leaf blowing in the wind, or even a person walking by! This behavior made this species especially difficult to photograph today. Whenever I went to take a photo, a Spring Azure would fly overhead and the duskywing would fly up and chase off the intruder.

Juvenal's Duskywing
Another species of duskywing that is flying right now is the Sleepy Duskywing. This species is a bit smaller than the Juvenal's, and is less aggressive. These two species (and all duskywings for that matter) use similar habitats and can often be found together. Today, I watched several Sleepy Duskywings chased down the trail by Juvenal's. In a few weeks, Dreamy and Wild Indigo Duskywings will become more common and the species flying now will disappear until next spring.

I also came across one of my favorite butterflies while I was out in the woods today. As I was watching a Spring Azure (the species flying now is likely Celastrina lucia), a small, brown butterfly darted past. At first I thought it was another duskywing, but I realized that it was flapping differently. When I got a better look, I saw orange markings on the top of the wings. When the butterfly finally stopped, I saw the intricate patterning of an Eastern Pine Elfin. This species only occurs in this area in April and early May, and can be hard to find due to its small size and somewhat picky habitat preference.
The Eastern Pine Elfin that I found today
Eastern Pine Elfins use a variety of host plants as caterpillars, all of which are in the genus Pinus, the pines. The individuals that I have seen in the past few years are likely using pitch pine, as this is the most common pine in the woods at this location. Last year, I even saw an elfin sitting on a very small pitch pine tree.

Eastern Pine Elfin on host plant, Pitch Pine (from 2011)