The Painted Lichen Moth (Hypoprepia fucosa) caterpillar feeds on lichens and algae on trees. Hypoprepia can shoot frass, called fecal flicking, up to 30 body lengths away. The frass is trapped and held in anal combs until the pressure becomes too great and the frass is ejected. This behavior might help them hide from predatory wasps, which sniff them out by the smell of their frass. The adults bold coloration, called aposematic, could be a warning that they are distasteful. Others have suggested that some moths in this genus mimic lightning bugs, which are known to be foul tasting.
Despite the snow pack, there are some early signs of spring around my bird feeder. The Black-capped Chickadees are beginning to use their spring “cheeseburger” song. The Downy Woodpecker is occasionally drumming. But for the American Goldfinches visiting my feeder, the breeding season is a long way off. These finches are some of the latest nesting songbirds here in Vermont, waiting until July before even pondering a nest.
American Goldfinches are the vegans of the bird world. They consume little or no insects, relying instead on a granivorous diet, even when feeding their nestlings. Most songbirds give their chicks food that is high in protein, suggesting that goldfinches must have a special adaptation for getting enough protein from plant seeds. This might be why Brown-headed Cowbirds, infamous for laying eggs in other species nests on the sly, are unable to fully develop in goldfinch nests. They hatch, but when fed a granivorous diet, their growth is slow and they often die before they can fledge.
It has long been known that American Goldfinches nest when thistles have gone to seed in mid- to late summer. As the thistles are flowering, the female goldfinches are building their nests and mating. But what stimulates them to mate and nest so late?
A group of biologists from the University of Western Ontario and the University of California recently presented their experimental work on reproductive physiology of eastern American Goldfinches. In an aviary they exposed groups of finches to hot or cool climates and either blooming, non-blooming or no thistles as the photoperiod increased.
What stimulated the males for breeding? The biologists found a significant effect of flowering thistle. Under warmer conditions, there was a greater testis size and testosterone concentration in birds exposed to blooming compared to non-blooming thistle or no thistle at all. The males also liked it hot. There was no effect of blooming thistle on males in the cooler climate.
A bit of hot weather and a bouquet of thistle is an avian aphrodisiac.
Here’s 14 of my favorite nature photographs that I captured in 2014. It might be the story behind the image, or perhaps the image itself that attracted me to it. These may not be my “best” photographs. Rather, they’re my favorite. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. Visit my photography site to see these images in their full glory.
Snowy Owl – Killington, Vermont – 1 January 2014
He was perched high up in a spruce tree at the base of a very busy ski lift with blasting rock music. I didn’t want to disturb him, so I perched about 100 yards away. Soon I was showing snowboarders and skiers the owl at the top of tree. I heard lots of – dude that is totally awesome – and it was. With a crowd gathered around me the owl suddenly flew and landed just 25 yards away from us on a snow pile, but his back was toward us. My camera was ready on a tripod. I put it in position and then begged him to turn our way. Just as the sun peered from behind the clouds, so did he. He turned his head and stared at us with his bright yellow eyes. After a few minutes, he looked away and then flew back up to the tree. Skiers skied on and I left to get away from the loud rock music. My first bird species in 2014 was a memorable one.
Spring River Fog – Connecticut River, Bradford, Vermont – 20 May 2014
An enchanted early morning with newly arrived migrant songbirds singing all around us in the morning fog.
Goldenrod Crab Spider (Misumena vatia) – Appalachian Trail, Quechee, Vermont – 29 May 2014
I spotted this spider waiting in ambush while watching butterflies visit flowers on the edge of the woods along the trail. They grab prey with their front legs and inject venom into them and then suck their prey dry.
Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela) – Woodstock, Vermont – 30 June 2014
This little gem is found fluttering near woodland edges. Its flight seems weak until you approach it for a photograph. It bounces and dodges around the nearest patch of shrubs or into the woods to avoid the lens. After chasing them around for several hours, I finally captured this one on the edge of the dark woods.
Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus) – Woodstock, Vermont – 30 June 2014
Hanging with its wings closed at the base of a tree waiting for the night, this striking moth opened its wings when I approached it.
Virginia Ctenucha (Ctenucha virginica) Trapped – North Branch Nature Center, Montpelier, Vermont – 8 July 2014
With its foot stuck in a milkweed flower like a Chinese finger trap, the moth hung lifeless. Unlike most flowers, milkweeds don’t produce tiny grains of pollen to be carried away piece by piece. Instead, the flower produces sticky, orange packets of pollen, called pollinia, which are designed to stick to an insect’s leg. In each of the five slits are two pollinia waiting to be accidentally snagged and carried off. In order for an insect to pick up one of the pollinia from a milkweed flower, its leg has to slip into a tiny slit between the anthers along the side of the flower. As the insect struggles to pull its leg back out of that tiny opening, it might emerge with a pollinia or two stuck to it. If the insect is too small or too weak, the only way it can escape the flowers grip is to leave its leg behind. Read more…
Head Harbour (East Quoddy) Lighthouse – Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada – 31 July 2014
While out hunting for whales to photograph (fruitlessly), a ray of sun lit the lighthouse standing before a bank of thick fog looming just offshore.
Skimming Bluet (Enallagma geminatum) – Dewey’s Pond, Quechee, Vermont – 1 September 2014
It is thought that this species is almost exclusively found in lakes containing fish, perhaps to avoid predation by dragonfly larvae that are far more abundant in fishless waters. The female lays eggs unaccompanied by the male in algae and floating debris on the water surface.
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) Portrait – Mt. Mansfield, Vermont – 17 September 2014
This year marks the 20th season I have been studying birds on Mt. Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak. After we banded it, I captured a portrait of this Blue Jay before it was released. Feather colors are formed by either pigmentation or structure. Tiny air pockets in the barbs of Blue Jay feathers scatter incoming light resulting in this blue color being reflected back.
Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) – Woodstock, Vermont – 3 October 2014
The Monarch population is measured in the number of acres they cover in their densely packed winter habitat in central Mexico. There has been a steady decline in numbers of butterflies since 1996, from 15 acres of forest down to 3 last winter. That represents a drop from about one billion butterflies down to 60 million in just the lifetime of my daughter. This year we had an average migration of Monarchs after a dismal migration in 2013. This female was fueling up in the early morning sun. Monarchs in Vermont can be found by the tens to hundreds at times in pastures and hayfields with Red Clover in August and September fueling up for a long flight. Monarchs are the Vermont State Butterfly and Red Clover is the State Flower.
Late Autumn – Woodstock, Vermont – 18 October 2014
WIth most of the leaves already on the ground, mid-morning sun peeking from behind the clouds lit this Sugar Maple on fire.
Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus) Released – North Branch Nature Center, Montpelier, Vermont – 27 October 2014
One of the most common owls in forests across northern North America during the breeding season, Northern Saw-whet Owls are nocturnal and seldom seen. But you may hear them. Listen for a sharp, high, repeated too-too-too call, reminiscent of the sound a truck makes to warn you it is backing up. During October and November they migrate southward from their northern haunts to spend the winter in dense forests across the central and southern US. Hundreds of biologists are studying their migration and populations across the continent at banding stations, several of them in Vermont. I joined the crew at North Branch Nature Center one night to watch the action. Carol Suich hoped she’d see her first Northern Saw-whet Owl too. She got a better view than she’d imagined. The owl rested on her arm after banding before it flew off into the night.
Bruce Spanworm (Operophtera bruceata) – Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, Woodstock, Vermont – 9 November 2014
November at dusk with the temperature barely breaking 40 degrees I could see my breath. Yet, all around me moths fluttered through the woods. This cold weather moth is a thermo-conformers. Incredibly, males can fly with air and body temperature ranging from just 27 up to a balmy 77 degrees. Females completely lack wings. When they emerge in October or November, they crawl to the lower trunk of a host tree where they solicit flying males with fine chemistry. Read more…
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) – Honeymoon Island State Park, Dunedin, Florida – 28 December 2014
During early evening I found this Osprey feeding on a Sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus) not far from shore. The purple clouds in the background and its yellow eye staring at me caught my eye. Ospreys are unusual among raptors in possessing a reversible outer toe that allows them to grasp with two toes in front and two behind. Barbed pads on the soles of the feet help them grip slippery fish.
Today, after a 14-month review, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the rufa subspecies of the red knot as threatened.
I captured this shot at the end of a winter storm a few days ago with my iPhone. The dark trees contrasting with the fresh white snow caught my eye. I developed this as a black and white in Silver Efex Pro.