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Spring in the air and at your feet

The last day of March was mild and sunny. Hikers on the trails were buoyant, grateful for a break from weeks of snow, ice, cold and wind in Maryland’s Piedmont.

I was grateful for favorite signs of spring — an Eastern Bluebird pair and the first wildflowers in bloom.

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Eastern Bluebird male. The bluebird pair perched in a familiar location — a tree favored for hunting insects and keeping an eye on nestbox monitors. 

Springbeauty Claytonia viginica

Springbeauty (Claytonia virginica), this low-grower is one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom in Maryland’s Piedmont. 

 

 

2017 by the numbers

Many happy and, I hope, productive hours as a citizen scientist and naturalist in 2017. My year by the numbers:

1 photo selected for Maryland Department of Natural Resources 2018 calendar

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This photo of Eastern Bluebird eggs in characteristic straw nest appears in DNR calendar

1 Endangered S2 wildflower documented

Thread Leaf False Foxglove Agalinis setacea Johnston

Thread Leaf False Foxglove (Agalinis setacea) is endangered in MD by serpentine habitat loss

5 Black Swallowtail butterflies raised from eggs and caterpillars found on fennel grown for their benefit in home pollinator garden

Bl Sw chrysalis transp

Black Swallowtail chrysalis nearing eclosure

18 Monarch butterflies raised from eggs and caterpillars found on milkweed grown in home pollinator garden. View more here.

Monarch watermelon

Monarchs don’t need to eat for 24 hours after eclosure. This one was offered watermelon fast food when cool and rainy weather delayed release.

38 Tree Swallows fledged from nestboxes monitored at two local parks

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Tree Swallow hen warms still featherless chicks

44 Eastern Bluebirds fledged from nestboxes monitored at two local parks. View more here.

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This Eastern Bluebird and its mate had three successful nests in 2017.

Think globally. Act locally.

Here’s to 2018! Happy New Year!

 

Note:  All photos were taken in the normal course of wildlife monitoring and care, without flash.

 

 

 

Winter wren

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Winter Wren

A year ago, I’d never heard of a Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis). A young girl — a birding prodigy — told me then that when you see one “you just know.” A couple weeks ago, I heard its loud song in the brush along a frozen marsh before I spotted it. She was right. When I saw it, I just knew.

More compact and with a narrower beak than more familiar House Wrens and Carolina Wrens, Winter Wrens winter here in Maryland and in a broad swath from Iowa to Florida, returning to Canada and the northernmost US mid-section each summer to breed. A long migration for a little bundle of energy.

 

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Not much was stirring in daylight along the frozen marsh

 

 

Monarch miracle

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Monarch butterfly

Think about it. The Monarch butterflies that are arriving now by the millions in the mountains of Mexico were born on the underside of a milkweed leaf in North America. If all went well, some of those leaves and butterflies were in my backyard in the Maryland Piedmont.

Monarch adults — butterflies on the wing — can feed on any nectar, but Monarch caterpillars can only feed on milkweed. I offer both milkweed and a succession of nectar plants in my yard.

It’s estimated that only one in ten Monarch eggs successfully reaches adult butterfly stage. To improve those odds, I reared Monarch eggs and caterpillars that I found in my yard, protecting and feeding them in airy enclosures. Eighteen out of 22 Monarch eggs and caterpillars made it to adulthood and flew away. (I tip my hat to Monarch champions who raise hundreds each year from eggs and caterpillars found in fields and roadsides.)

Here are a few scenes from this summer’s Monarch adventure:  egg, five caterpillar stages of growth, chrysalis stage, and adult butterfly.

Monarch female ovipositing

This Monarch is laying eggs. I followed her path, collected and successfully reared six of her eggs.

Monarch egg

Monarch eggs, laid one per leaf, are hard to find and harder to photograph. Eggs hatch after three to five days.

Monarch hatched instar mag

Incredibly tiny, just-hatched Monarch caterpillar. Called a 1st instar, it will eat its shell.

1st instar Monarch caterpillars

1st instar Monarch caterpillars eat a tiny pattern in milkweed leaves.

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Monarch caterpillars shed their skins with each new instar. These are 2nd instar.

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Still small, but growing. Their antennae are longer at this stage.

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Larger and eating lots of fresh milkweed every day. Their antennae extend beyond their heads at this stage.

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Growing and eating, Monarchs remain in caterpillar stage about two weeks.

Monarch five cats writing

At 5th and last instar, caterpillars are plump and their antennae are more than 1/4 the length of their bodies. Soon they will form a chrysalis.

When ready to pupate, a Monarch caterpillar climbs to a high spot, fixes itself to a surface with silk, and drops to a “J” before shedding its skin one more time to form a chrysalis.

Mon chrys

It takes a Monarch caterpillar about two weeks to transform to an adult butterfly. Wings become visible in the chrysalis as the time to emerge approaches.

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The chrysalis is transparent right before the butterfly ecloses, i.e., emerges.

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Butterflies need a couple hours for their wings to harden and strengthen for flight.

Monarch #14 Fem

Monarch female gathering strength in an enclosure

Monarch watermelon

Monarchs don’t need to eat for 24 hours after eclosure. This one was offered watermelon fast food when cool and rainy weather delayed release.

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Two Monarchs, tagged for tracking as part of Monarch Watch, ready for take-off

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Monarchs that emerge in late August to October are the “super generation” that migrates to overwinter in Mexico. They will resume their journey in the spring, beginning a new generation in the southern US. That generation will bear another generation, with several successive and shorter-lived generations continuing north until the next “super generation.” 

You can help Monarchs! Plant milkweed for caterpillars and flowers that are good sources of nectar for butterflies. Monarchs especially need gardeners to grow flowers that bloom in late summer and autumn, when many gardens have passed peak, to fuel their journey to Mexico.  Think asters, zinnias, cosmos, lantana, Montauk daisies. Find Monarch Watch’s plant list here. You’ll be rewarded with butterflies.

 

Ladies present! Painted Lady butterflies

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Painted Lady butterfly

Butterfly fanciers have been positively giddy about the abundance of Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) this year. If you have admired a garden patch of zinnias or cosmos or driven through the countryside this fall, odds are you’ve seen this butterfly. These photos are from Maryland’s Piedmont.

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Painted Lady butterfly dorsal view

Painted Ladies breed throughout the US and most of Canada, then travel south to overwinter in the southern states’ warmer climate. A few weeks ago, a 70-mile wide mass of migrating Painted Ladies was picked up on National Weather Service radar over Colorado. See the radar image here. That’s a lot of butterflies.

Painted Ladies are one of the most common butterflies in the world, found on all continents except Antarctica and Australia. Just as they migrate in North America, Painted Ladies also stage annual mass migrations from Europe to North Africa.

Another familiar Lady is the American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis). The difference is in the eyes.

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American Lady has two prominent eyespots on its hindwings

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Painted Lady hindwing has a row of four smaller eyespots

You can help migrating butterflies by planting late-season nectar sources like asters, zinnias, cosmos, goldenrod and mistflower. Learn more here.

 

Eclipse Mallard

Monday’s coast-to-coast solar eclipse reminds me of another eclipse from this year. This “eclipse” Mallard.

Eclipse mallard drake NPSP

Eclipse Mallard drake (June 2017)

An “eclipse” duck is a drake that has molted from its breeding plumage. The bright head pictured here suggests this one’s molt is incomplete. A partial eclipse, one might say. This drake will eventually have muted colors, more like a Mallard hen, and will lose its ability to fly until new flight feathers grow in.

Mallard hen marsh colors

Mallard hen (June 2017)

All birds molt to replace worn feathers. Juvenile birds molt as they attain adult feathering. The casual backyard birder notices seasonal molts, for instance, when that male cardinal at the feeder isn’t quite as brilliant a red in late summer and its crest is looking kind of shabby. For species with distinctive breeding plumage, the transitions are particularly conspicuous.

So add eclipse plumage to the list of variations that confound birders.

MALL M eclipse call

Mallard drake showing off its plumage (June 2017)

 

Time to meet the world, little bluebird

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Eastern Bluebird coaxing nestling to fledge

Monday was fledge day for a nest of Eastern Bluebirds. I watched this mother bluebird swoop and sing to entice the last nestling out of the nestbox, while the father tended the three that had already fledged.

She chattered, sang and flew back and forth within view of the nestbox’s entry hole. Her efforts were successful and the straggler left the nest while I monitored the rest of the trail.

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Eastern Bluebird calling to remaining chick in nestbox

It’s a real treat to witness bluebird parents’ song and dance on fledge day. Tree swallows too, who are joined by other fledglings and extended family in soaring around the nest.

For the bluebird parents, it’s the beginning of a next phase of feeding and protecting the young birds, a process that began when the straw nest was built and eggs laid in late June. The chicks hatched a little over two weeks later and fledged at 17 days old.

From another nest, here’s a look at Eastern Bluebird nestlings fully feathered and ready to fledge.

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Fully feathered Eastern Bluebirds ready to fledge (from a different nestbox)

 

Note:  All in-box photos are taken in the course of normal nestbox monitoring without the use of flash. External photos are taken at respectful and safe distances.

 

 

 

 

Moth enchantment

Think all moths are drab, dull, destructive? Think again! Some look like hummingbirds. Others like jewels. One is named for a mythical giant.

This is a Hummingbird Clearwing moth. Resembling a hummingbird in size and flight, it hovers while feeding on nectar, working its way around a blossom, then flitting to another flower.

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Look for Hummingbird Clearwing moths feeding on beebalm

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Next is a small, jewel-like moth often mistaken for a flower beetle. It is the Ailanthus Webworm moth (Atteva aurea). Native to Florida and Central America, it has migrated north and adopted the invasive Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) as a larval host plant.

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A close-up look at the diminutive Ailanthus Webworm moth. It is commonly found with bees, butterflies and other pollinators on flowers like this native Mountain Mint.

Turning to a much larger moth, the stunning Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus) takes its name from the mythical Cyclops Polyphemus. A type of giant silk moth, its wingspan reaches six inches.

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This Cyclops has two eyes — a giant Polyphemus moth

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bluebirds of happiness

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This Eastern Bluebird male and its mate have built a nest in a nearby box. Keen eyesight enables bluebirds to hunt from trees for insects on the ground.

Eastern Bluebird nesting season is well under way in Maryland. Here are scenes this spring from a few of the bluebird nests that I have the privilege to monitor.**

EABL female guarding

This Eastern Bluebird female is guarding her nest from Tree Swallows, which have been perching on the nestbox roof. Note the female’s subtler colors.

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Eastern Bluebird eggs in a characteristic straw nest. Bluebird eggs incubate 12 to 14 days before hatching.

5 EABL at 7 days 4B crop

Eastern Bluebird nestlings about a week old. Nestlings typically leave the nest 16 to 22 days after hatching.

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In a different nest, these two nestlings are about ready to fledge. Adults will fly back and forth in front of a nestbox to entice chicks when it’s time to leave the nest and enter the outside world.

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Both male and female Eastern Bluebirds are attentive parents. This male has caught an insect to feed to nestlings.

 

There are more than 60 nestboxes at the two parks where I help monitor. Our boxes attract Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, Carolina Chickadees and House Wrens. Year-round, nestboxes are constructed, installed, repaired and maintained. During nesting season, nests are visited at least weekly to address any problems and to collect breeding data, which is entered to the NestWatch.org database at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology for use by researchers worldwide.

 

** Note:  All nestbox photos were taken to aid monitoring and with the least intrusion. Photos inside nestboxes never use flash. Photos of adults were taken from a distance.

 

 

 

 

Wildflowers prevail

Despite a wild spring that careened from drought to driving rains to 90 degree heat to freeze warnings, wildflowers continued to bloom in Maryland’s Piedmont. Here are a few.

Some are showy.

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Showy Orchis, one of Maryland’s native orchids

Bellwort HZ

Perfoliate Bellwort. Note how the blossom’s stem seems to pierce the leaf.

Smooth Solomon Seal OR

Smooth Solomon’s Seal

violet HZ Panther Branch stream

Violet seeds are carried by ants, even to this rock overlooking a stream.

jack-in-the-pulpit HZ

Easily recognized Jack-in-the-Pulpit. Its three leaves are sometimes mistaken for poison ivy. (Better safe than sorry.)

Others wildflowers have a more subtle charm and are often overlooked. All have a place in nature.

dwarf ginseng HZ2

Dwarf Ginseng does not share the medicinal qualities of its cousin, American Ginseng.

star chickweed

Star Chickweed providing food for an early pollinator

Two-leaved mitrewort

The petals of the Two-leaved Mitrewort are shaped like snowflakes.

Indian cucumber root blossom OR

Indian Cucumber-Root has two tiers of whorled leaves. In the fall, the base of the top leaves will be deep red, forming a ring around the plant’s fruit.

Indian cucumber root blossom crop OR

Closer look at the Indian Cucumber-Root blossom

Blue-eyed grass

Blue-eyed Grass along the wood’s edge

 

Pink Lady Slippers and Large Yellow Lady Slippers, Maryland’s largest native orchids, eluded me again this spring. The ones I saw were already past bloom. Wait ’til next year!

 

 

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