The Bugs of Negri-Nepote

I am not a bug person. Except for dragonflies and damselflies. And butterflies. In my mind map, Odonata and Lepidotera are not bugs. I do occasionally take photographs of insects, especially when I am walking through Negri-Nepote, the grassland preserve near my central New Jersey home. Here are some of the insects I’ve seen this past spring and summer.

Phantom Crane Fly
NN: Phantom Crane

There is a small brook in the east wooded area of Negri-Nepote, really a trickle of water. I don’t get there often. One morning in early July I realized the brook might have some interesting odonates, and while I was photographing my life Great Blue Skimmer I saw motion. Not a bug, not anything material, just a wave, a wisk, a movement. Eventually, I saw the very thin creature with thread-thin legs making its way along the stream bed and took a photo before it became pure movement again. I thought at first it was some kind of dragonfly, but when I looked at a cropped close-up realized it was something different, I had no idea what. Fortunately, I have very nature-smart Facebook friends who immediately put me on to Phantom Crane Fly, Bittacomorpha clavipes of the family Ptychopteridae. Phantom Crane Flies fly with their thin legs perpendicular to the ground, which means that when you look at them straight-on they seem to disappear. I wasn’t even sure it was a biological creature!

Spheccid Wasp Negri-Nepote: Wasp, SPHECID

There are just a few clumps of butterfly weed at Negri-Nepote and on the best days you can find wonderful things on them. I observed this wasp crawling in and out of the milkweed’s flowers in mid-July, one of four. They were quite large, almost 2-inches in length, and stunningly beautiful. I was almost disappointed when I realized they were wasps. I don’t like wasps, they sting. I think this is a Sphecid or Thread-waisted Wasp. Genus Ammophila of the Family Sphecidae. There are a lot of species in Ammophilia, over 60 in North America, and based on the best Internet research I can do late at night, I’m going to say that this is Ammophila procera. Corrections welcome. BugEric, an authoritative insect blogger, says that Ammophila procera are “shy or gentle in nature”. Right. Still not going to pick one up.

Hummingbird Clearwing, Hermaris thysbe
NN: Hummingbird Moth 2

Snowberry Clearwing, Hemaris diffinis
NN: Hummingbird Moth 3

Ahhhh, Hummingbird Moths! I saw these two species along the path to the blind. As usual, my Facebook friends helped with identification, and I learned that there are more than one species. I love the way the tongue, or proboscis, rolls out. The U.S. Forest Service has a good article about Hummingbird Moths. It explains that like all Lepidoptera, hummer moths have scales on their wings. These two clearwing species are “clear” because the scales have fallen off in certain areas.

Geometrid Moth
NN: Geometrid Moth

Here’s a different kind of moth. The closest I could come to identification was that it is a Geometrid Moth. It was flying during the day, like the Clearwing Moths. I really like the shape, a juxtaposition of squares and polyhedrons, and the blacks and grays. (Alas, I wanted to write “shades of gray” but that term has been co-opted.)

Negri-Nepote: Cicada

I don’t remember ever seeing Cicadas before. I know I’ve heard Cicadas. This one flew past me and buried itself into a bush. I’m thinking that that is the mouth feeding on the stem? According to the website Massachusetts Cicada, “Cicadas have a unique mouth part for feeding known as a beak. It is a stylus-type protuberance used for piercing” plants for water and minerals. There’s also an interesting website called Cicada Mania, written by Dan Mozgai of New Jersey of all places(!), which talks about the 17 or 13-year lifecycle cicadas versus the annual 2 to 7-year life cycle cicadas. I would guess that this one is an annual, since New Jersey isn’t due for the Magicicada (that’s the 17/13 year species name) till 2013. The annual cicada is also called the Dog Day Cicada, I guess because it emerges during late August, the dog days of summer. Species name is Tibicen canicularis.

Carpenter Bee
Negri-Nepote: Bee

And, finally, here is a Carpenter Bee. I think. I posted the photo on Flickr, labeling it a Bumblebee, and was quickly corrected by a bee person. If there is one thing I hate worse than wasps, it’s bees. Some bad bee experiences in my past, I won’t talk about them here, be assured, they were traumatic. So, I don’t like taking photographs of bees. But, I didn’t feel like I could write a blog about the insects of Negri-Nepote without including at least one bee (in addition to the one wasp.) Because there are an awful lot of bees at Negri-Nepote. So far, they have allowed me to explore the fields without a sting, but I do keep my distance. I respect the fact that without bees the whole ecological system of the grassland will fail. So they tell me.


Kirtland’s Warbler–My Latest Book Review on 10,000 Birds

My latest book review is up on 10,000 Birds! It’s all about the Kirtland’s Warbler, a bird I have not seen yet, but hope to see in the near future. All I need is a long weekend trip to Michigan, right? The book is The Kirtland’s Warbler: The Story of a Bird’s Fight Against Extinction and the People Who Saved It by William Rapai. Good summer reading–not too heavy, not too light. Read the review!

My Great Gray Owl

It’s been a little over two months since I saw the Great Gray Owl.  January 6th, to be exact, in Kingsville, Ontario, Canada. It was my first Great Gray Owl, Strix nebulosa, a bird I’ve been coveting for years, ever since I realized that I had missed the Great Gray Owl invasion of 2004-5.  This was the bird I most wanted to see in 2012.

Ontario: Great Gray Owl 2

The owl was first reported on December 23rd, 2011 and it was a big deal. There are Great Gray Owls in Ontario, but not in the southwest, near the shore of Lake Erie, a half-hour southeast of Windsor, just across the Ambassador Bridge and 20 minutes west of Pt. Pelee. This was a Great Gray Owl that could be easily seen. If you lived in Michigan or Ohio or Ontario.

I lusted after the Great Gray Owl in frustration for weeks till I realized that in early January I would be in a place, let’s say Chicago, that was only a short drive, let’s say 5.5 hours, away.  The owl was not being seen regularly at that point. I had contacted a couple of local birders, hoping it was one of those situations where people just weren’t reporting it, which seemed crazy to me, but it was rural Canada, a town of around 20,000 people, so–who knew? The absence of news was not promising, but sometimes one needs to trust the birding goddess. I got into my rental car and drove east.

My path took me through Indiana, where I chanced on a Snowy Owl (thank goodness for birders who point out owls to strangers) at a place called Port of Indiana on Lake Michigan, which turned out to be a guarded industrial area, not a real port.  Here is a digiscoped photo of the owl, taken before the security people showed up and threatened to take away my camera.
Indiana: Snowy Owl on the Jetty

It was dark by the time I got to the Ambassador Bridge, barely visible behind construction and detour signs. Night in Windsor, coffee at Tim Horton’s, time to go for the bird. It was only then I realized that not only could I not use my iPhone to check the Ontario listserv or to call the local birders, I couldn’t use the GPS function to find my way to the bird. I was in Canada, a foreign country, helpless without my phone.

A little more coffee and I realized I needed to go east. And south. And east, towards the sun. I knew I was in the right place when I recognized the street signs, set far apart in this rural area comprised of very large rectangles of fields and woods. The owl was not at its last location. This was o.k. because sometimes you want to do a little work to find the bird. Calling on expertise imparted by my birding mentors, I did that sophisticated thing you do when looking for a famous rarity: drive around and look for the big cameras. And, it worked!

Ontario: My First View of My Great Gray Owl

I saw the small mob of photographers and tripods on McCain Side Road, south of the intersection with Road Two. Pulling over behind the line of cars, I jumped out, camera and scope in hand. I assumed the owl was much further down the road, beyond the crowd, and started running. Then I stopped. I had left my bins in the car. I stood in the road for a second, stuck between running to see the owl immediately, before it flew off as it undoubtedly would, and taking a minute to retrieve my binoculars. And then, my problem was solved. A large dark being flew out from the clutch of photographers, aimed straight towards me, and perched on a branch of a tree on the edge of the road, 6 feet away. “Well,” I said to myself, “I guess I won’t need the binoculars.” This was my first view of my Great Gray Owl. I was in love. And, I think he was in love with me.

Ontario: Great Gray Owl Stands AloneBecause, this is what happened: After gasping and staring and photographing and some more gasping and staring, I walked across the road to put my scope in a safe place, away from cars and the photographers, who were awkwardly running up the road with their cameras and tripods. I stood by my car, parked in front of the only house on the street. I looked up. The owl was flying across the road to a short tree in front of me, and then onto this post, a little lower down. Directly in front of me. The photographers looked at me suspiciously, then ran across the road and set up their tripods on either side of me. I started wondering if the owl would follow me into my car, but figured it would be hard to explain the bird to immigration control.

Ontario: Great Gray Close-up
The Great Gray Owl was not as large or as massive as I had imagined; his shape had a compact, tapering quality, and the shape of the head changed as he stretched and preened. His colors were lovely, gray and ecru (o.k., off-white), brown, and all shades in-between, changing with the light. The thin line of white feathers under his face, his bow-tie, gave him a natty, dressed-for-success-but-a-little-worn-out look. His eyes, when he chose to open them, were that incredible neon-bright yellow, but mostly they were hooded, set far back in his head. I know we’re not supposed to anthropomorphize, but I couldn’t help wonder what the owl was feeling. Sometimes he looked gentle, other times, very stern and impatient with us humans.

Ontario: Great Gray Owl Listening

Here is one of my favorite photos. I was wondering if those indentations indicated where the owl’s ear openings were, so I asked my very knowledgeable birder friends via Facebook. Allison Shock, also known as Three-Star Owl, replied, “That may not be the actual opening where the wind has parted the plumage, but it’s close — the ear openings are right behind the rows of stiffened feathers in the facial disc. You’ve got yourself a real case of “Half Dome Head” there! Allow me to rudely quote myself: Half-Dome Head: the Geology of Owl Crania.” Allison is a sculptor as well as a birder, so she needs to know about things like skulls and feathers. Please, read her article. She does a great job describing technical things in language we can all understand, such as why the Great Gray Owl’s face is shaped like a radar dish and why the head is shaped like the granitic dome formation, Half Dome, in Yosemite Valley, California,

Another Facebook friend, birder photographer Christopher Ciccone, wrote, “Some additional cool info… the sides of the skull are right next to the outside edge of the eyes – the rest of that big head is all feathers! Also, the ear holes are not even – one is higher than the other to help them hear in 3d. Very cool adaptions!!” I knew about the all-feathers fun fact, which is pretty amazing. I did not know about the asymmetrical ear holes. And, according to the Lab of O’s Birds of North America, it also has an asymmetrical skull! The left external ear opening is directed further upwards than the right external opening; this gives the owl very precise directional hearing.

Ontaro: Photographers Waiting for the Owl

A lot of birders had traveled to see this owl, but the day I was there, I felt like I was the only birder in the crowd. There were photographers and local people and me. Some of the people who lived in the area had seen the bird almost every day. Mothers came with their kids, businessmen stopped their cars on the road to ask how it was doing, police waved. Still, I was concerned. People were getting very close to the owl. The photographers stood in front of it, and on the rare occasions when the owl faced them and open his eyes, all their cameras went off at once. Hey, if I were a Great Gray Owl, I would not be happy about that. What? You only love me full frontal with my eyes open? “You have wings,” I told the owl telepathically, “Use them.”

And, he did. He flew off, across the fields, into the woods. The photographers looked after him wistfully, shrugged their shoulders, and said, “Lunch break.” The locals went home. I went off in search of more Snowy Owls, and to see the entrance of that mythical place, Pt. Pelee. It would be nice to see my Great Gray Owl again, but if he wanted to take the rest of the day off, find a hidden field where he could hunt for mice in peace, that was fine with me.

Postscript: The Great Gray Owl was not seen again that day, and by mid-January he was gone. Maybe. Someone said they saw him last week, March 15th, on the east side of Kingsville, but no one else was able to find it. I like that idea. The owl is out there, on the shores of Lake Erie, successfully eluding the people who would adore it.

Ten Reasons Why I Love New York City

A couple of weeks ago I brought chicken soup to a Facebook friend sick and miserable in a motel outside of Kennedy airport. Julie has tons of Facebook friends, and when she wrote about my soup delivery they showered me with thanks. It was a bit overwhelming. I was surprised that a lot of them said they would and could never live in New York City (or any city). One woman said she did get a different picture of the city from reading my blog, which made me realize that I actually don’t have a lot here about birding in the city.

So, here are some of the reasons why I love living in NYC, especially Queens. I’m drawing on photos I’ve taken over the past few years, so I can’t show Every Reason. I don’t have photos of the theater and I can’t convey the energy I feel when I walk around the East Village or people watch in Bryant Park. If you’re not from New York City, I hope you’ll see how possible it is to live here and still be very much a part of the natural world. You just may have to take the subway to get there.

1. Snow Geese Flying over Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. A few miles from JFK Airport as the goose flies.
JRWR: Snow Geese in Formation

2. Pink-footed Goose at Meadow Lake, a 12-minute walk from my home. Much better view than the one I got in Iceland.
Meadow Lake: Pink-Footed Goose

3. Snow. And Cardinals in the Snow.
Central Park: Northern Cardinal Stuffing Face

4. A Robin nesting in a traffic light. Shown to me by one of Central Park’s best nature photographers (thank you again, Cal).
Central Park: Robin & babies at red light

5. Great Horned Owlets almost every year in my neighborhood park. Alley Pond Park: GHOwlets

6. Family. Three generations (including me, the photographer) enjoying music in Central Park. Then, I force them to look at the birds.
Music in Central Park

7. Meadowhawks at Little Alley Pond, Queens. When you look at them, you can’t hear the cars whizzing by on the Parkway next door.
Alley: Meadowhawk

8. Monk Parakeets Building a Nest in Whitestone, a mile from where I grew up.
Whitestone: Monk Parakeets Enjoy Winter Berries

9. Bridges. Ways out, ways in. And, some of them are home to Peregrine Falcons. Brooklyn: Verrazano Bridge

10. Jamaica Bay sunsets. Look closely and you can see “the city” on the other side. This is my constant source of wonder, the juxtaposition of the natural against the man-made. Jamaica Bay NWR: Terrapin Trail, sunset

What? Another Snowy Owl Post?

Genoa, NY: Snowy Owl There are Snowy Owls all over the United States! Vermont, Indiana, Washington, South Dakota, even Hawaii (though that one was sadly shot ’cause it was at the airport…I know, I don’t get it either). Word came through NJBirds on November 9th that a Snowy Owl had been found by Merrill Creek Reservoir, and I finally decided I absolutely needed to see it in early December. (And, the Owl is still there as I write this up in mid-January.)

I have been a fortunate birder when it comes to Snowy Owls. I saw my Life Snowy Owl in May 2006 in Genoa, NY; it just happened to show up while I was at nearby Cornell on a work trip. That’s the sweetie’s photo above. No one knew what it was doing in upstate New York in May.

Jones Beach: Snowy Owl again!

And, then there was the winter of 2008 when all you had to do for a Snowy Owl fix was take a walk along Jones Beach. Owls here, owls there, Snowy Owls everywhere! This one was at West End 2. You wouldn’t know it, but it was surrounded by birders and photographers. There have been others, but I don’t want to spend this post gloating.

I made the trek out to Warren County on December 3rd. A birder had kindly given very specific instructions on how to locate the Snowy, which had found a new spot by the south dam, away from the water.  I had never been to Merrill Creek Reservoir before, and rejoiced in my personal discovery of a new birding spot on a beautiful sunny (and cold) afternoon.

NJ: Merrill Creek Reservoir

NJ: Merrill Creek Crow

The directions took me from an unmarked parking lot on Fox Farm Road through the woods, where a murder of crows were noisily congregating (murdering?), to an unused gravel road, around a locked gate that barely allowed my camera passage, and along the top of the south dam, pictured above.

NJ: Merrill Creek Reservoir: The View From Below

The Snowy Owl was way, way down from the dam path! I put my scope on him, got my look, and  gave the many non-birders who had heard about the owl views.  I love doing that, especially with kids. A walk down to where I could view the Snowy closer was next. The photo above gives you some idea how far down I had to go to be somewhat on the same level as the Owl, though it was still pretty far away. The smart bird had found a spot in the sun in an area separated from gawky sightseers by a ditch, rocks, and a sign saying “Do Not Enter This Area.”

NJ: Snowy Owl Takes a Peek at Her Worshippers

It was very happy, dozing, swiveling its head (usually away from us!), and preening. I was very happy just watching it.
NJ: Snowy Owl Preening

There has been a lot written about this year’s influx of Snowy Owls. Birders are saying that it is not just a lack of lemmings and other goodies in their native northern tundra. The story is that there were so many lemmings this summer that there was an explosion of young owls, and that what we are seeing are young males who have been crowded out. That doesn’t explain the all-white Snowy that has been seen regularly at Jones Beach, or this owl, which birders say is a juvenile female. It will be interesting to see how many more Snowys appear this winter. And the ornithological conclusion as to why. Personally, I find the reasoning why engaging, but the seeing is pure wonder and joy.

A Fall Morning at Negri-Nepote

I made a point of getting up early. There’s a special quality of light when you arrive at Negri-Nepote Grasslands early in the morning, misty gold, and the birds are much chirpier. Also, I was hoping to beat the hunters. Negri-Nepote is a grassland preserve in Somerset County, New Jersey, across Rte. 27 and down the road a bit, and the hunting season has been extended, as it has been in many New Jersey preserves, to help cull the deer. I was in luck today, the parking lot was empty. Well, empty of people.


nn.path There is one path that leads from the parking lot, on the edge of the forbidden farm to the southwest (those are PRIVATE KEEP OUT signs there). The view up the slope is clouded by early morning fog, so it takes me a minute to see the sparrows flying low across the path, from the trees on the farm border to the tall grass on the other side. Song, Savannah, White-throats, and, yes, Swamp Sparrow.

swampsparrow There have been a lot of Swamp Sparrows this year at Negri-Nepote. Some autumns I don’t see any. I think this is an immature Swamp Sparrow, note the slight streaking on the breast. It was clinging to a grass stalk in the field, enjoying the view, until some instinct told it, “Hunker down, lady with camera approaching!”

The sparrows are mostly silent this time of year. Yellow-rumped Warblers chip up and down the path, small flocks winging through the trees. And, then there are the Blue Jays, yapping away. In the mist, they look more gray than blue.

Up the slope, I easily see an Eastern Towhee and Field Sparrow in the Forbidden Zone. I approach Hannah Pond quietly. Susan T. came up with this name after the storm named Hannah destroyed some of our favorite birdy trees, and we’re making it stick by using it in every NJBirding report. I’m pleased to see my Pied-billed Grebe (I first spotted it two weeks ago) swimming with 16 Mallards.
And, there’s something on the wood duck nesting box, something large with an owl-like head, but not an owl. Northern Harrier! (Northern Harriers have an owl-like facial disk which gives them that special look as well as help them locate prey by sound.) The hawk rises as I try to take it’s photo from the blind, soars for 10 seconds then goes down with a vertical snap, settling on the edge of the pond with whatever it was he decided to eat for breakfast. Every other winged creature in Hannah Pond takes flight.
Negri-Nepote: Harrier at Hannah Pond

I hear a Red-tailed Hawk from the direction of the upper field. There is a nesting pair in the preserve, but I usually have to go to the other ends of the fields, northeast or northwest, to see them. Not today. It’s a short-walk morning, a work-day walk. The mist is gone, the uncut grass of the field above the pond shines golden.
Negri-Nepote: Fall Field

Coney Island Gulls Welcome Gray-hooded Gull to the ‘Hood

I was getting my hair cut when Seth re-found the Gray-hooded Gull, Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus, Saturday early afternoon.  I read the news on my iphone, sighed, and said to Diana, who had just finished washing my hair, “There’s a good bird at Coney Island.  A Gray-hooded Gull.   Usually seen in South America or Africa.”  Diana, who is young and for some reason interested in my birding activities, said, “Really?  I never see any good birds around here, just pigeons.” 

I laughed.  Because, that is the beautiful irony of birding, that magical creatures are found in the most unlikely places.  An Ash-throated Flycatcher in a vacant lot by a subway station.  A Hooded Crow in a bustling Staten Island park.  And now, the second sighting of Gray-hooded Gull in the United States, flying and foraging in the midst of that classic Brooklyn boardwalk/beach scene, Coney Island.  Not far, mileage-wise, from Forest Hills, Queens. 

Coney Island: Beach

On a sunny, beautiful, hot Saturday afternoon, it took more than a few minutes to drive to Coney Island and find parking.  I didn’t feel the anxiety I sometimes feel when I’m chasing a bird, the suspense of whether it will still be there or whether I will hear those dreaded words, “It was just here 5 minutes ago.”  The bird had been seen, the bird was seen the day before, it had been seen six days ago at noon.  That gull was not going anywhere else today.  I walked down the boardwalk, past couples dancing to a live band, past guys lounging on the rail, past families dripping water munching on French fries and tacos, to the recommended spot, between Nathan’s and the Wonder Wheel.
Coney Island: Wonder Wheel

There was a small knot of birders, recognizable by their field marks—binoculars, scopes, the fact that they were not wearing bathing suits, to the left of the bathing pavilion.  Not all looking at the same spot, which meant they did not have the bird.  One of them pointed to a flock of gulls further down.  Too far to view without a scope and I had left mine in the car, so I walked on.  I stopped to look at the Laughing Gulls flying in large circles over the beach.  And, immediately, I spotted a gull that was different. 

Coney Island: Gray-hooded Gull Aloft

The head was gray.  Not the splotchy gray of a first summer Laughing Gull, a lovely smooth gray hood distinctly delineated from the white body.  And the wings!  The upper wings were a work of art, a black-and-white pattern in decorative geometry. 

Coney Island: Gray-hooded Gull on the Wing

If I were reporting on this bird for an ornithological magazine, this is what I would write, “ The upper wings had a prominent white leading edge, the white being most extensive on the middle primaries and primary coverts.  The wing tip was mostly a large black triangle, which extended up both the leading and trailing edge. …A large white and short rectangular subterminal mirror was present on each of the two outermost primaries.”  [quoted from The Gray-hooded Gull in North America: First Documented Record, by Douglas B. McNair, North American Birds, vol. 53 (1999), issue 3] I am very bad at observing these details, so thank you, Douglas McNair. I prefer to observe the larger picture, the gull as art soaring over my head, over the Wonder Wheel, and back to the beach, with a grace that cannot be conveyed in a photograph.

I was 99% sure I had The Bird.  Looking back at the birders, I saw they were also observing it (confirmation!) as it flew out of sight. Back with the members of my tribe, engaging in the obligatory congrats and “what a great bird” comments, one of the birders kindly pointed out to me that the bird was still in the vicinity.  In fact, it was perched on a utility pole, right above my head! Which was quite fortunate, since I was so busy looking at it the first time, I had forgotten I had a camera.

Coney Island: Gray-hooded Gull !

Perched, I could observe it’s pale eye (“The orbital ring was carmine, the iris pale yellowish-white, the pupil dark” McNair), red legs, and red bill.  The first two features, as well as the uniform gray hood, were useful in distinguishing it from the Laughing Gulls , which became necessary when it flew over to perch with them on the roof of the bathing pavilion. 

Coney Island: Gull Fest

We soon had non-birders, including the local police, observing the bird with us, picking it out of the flock by finding the gull with the headlights, the two white windows that appeared when it flew overhead.

Coney Island: GHGU Underwing

For those of you not familiar with the history of how this gull was found:  the original finders, who had only been birding for a year, sent the sighting to ebird as a Black-headed Gull.  Doug, the ebird arbiter for the area, asked for a photo.  Black-headed Gull in mid-summer is noteworthy and unusual.  He looked at the photo and, I imagine, said, “That ain’t no Black-headed Gull!”  Several days had elapsed, and most of us thought the bird had moved on, but Shane, the Brooklyn bird whisperer, re-found the bird late Friday afternoon.   It then appeared that the bird would be a 3-observer wonder, as it flew off before many other birders could see it, the beach was closed for fireworks, and a thunderstorm drenched the 5-minutes too late birders.  But, no no no, it looks like this gull will be with us for a while.  Who’s to say how long?  The Gray-hooded Gull ain’t talking, just flying and foraging, just like it’s supposed to be doing.