October in the marsh

The marsh has gotten quieter in early autumn — no more squealing Ospreys, fewer Great Blue Herons snagging catfish, no Little Blue Herons that I could see, only one croak from a bullfrog, just a handful of dragonflies. The birds I spotted were mostly close enough to admire, but too far away to photograph well. Case in point, Wood Ducks in their eclipse plumage on a distant log. But it’s a peaceful quiet where you can observe the texture of the marsh that supports so much life. But when something moves, you notice.

Bald Eagle

I saw a flash of white move among trees and thought it might be a Pileated Woodpecker. It was a Bald Eagle! Though it was obscured by branches, I admired it for several minutes. When I moved on a bit hoping for a better angle, I discovered that the eagle pictured above and below had been perched out in the open the whole time!

Were you looking for me?
The eagle whose motion first caught my eye

This eagle pair has been seen in flight together. Let’s hope they will be nesting near the marsh this winter.

Far more active in the marsh were quite a few flycatchers, species of often small, not always easy to identify birds with distinctive feeding styles. Perch, zoom and zip after an airborne insect, return to perch; repeat. They are fun to watch.

Eastern Phoebe searching for an insect to snag
Flycatcher at work

In all, a beautiful, serene morning in the marsh.

Northern Flicker
Life takes root on a submerged log

Ever see a butterfly egg?

I spotted this Monarch butterfly laying eggs on the Swamp Milkweed in my backyard. It is said that a female Monarch can detect milkweed a mile away.

Monarch butterfly depositing a single egg

She moved quickly from milkweed plant to milkweed plant, depositing a single egg at each visit. Then flew off and returned to the yard to sip nectar and deposit more eggs. This happened several times.

Monarch female feeding on milkweed

Monarchs in the adult butterfly stage can feed on most any nectar-rich flower, but their caterpillar young can eat only milkweed.

The eggs of a Monarch are tiny, about one millimeter in size, yet intricate. They are visible to the naked eye, but it takes a close look.

After she flew off and was gone for a while, I searched the undersides of a few leaves, hoping to spot an egg and found one. The banner photo to this post gives a sense of proportion of egg to milkweed plant. Get a closer look at a Monarch egg in the next photo.

Monarch butterfly egg

Thus begins the four stages of this new Monarch’s life cycle: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and finally adult. It takes about 30 days to go from egg to adult.

If this new butterfly survives the threats and rigors of metamorphosis, it will fly to Mexico in early autumn to spend the winter in the mountains, and then return to the southern United States to breed in the spring. This little egg is part of the Monarch super-generation.

Below are a couple more photos.

Monarch ovipositing
Monarch nectaring

To help the Monarch super-generation, plant late-season nectar sources, like asters and zinnias, that will help fuel the journey to Mexico.

Ponds awaken

Green Frog and Water-lily

The small lily ponds that dot a local nature park are springing to life. These water features add to the biodiversity of the park, hosting amphibians, attracting dragonflies, and providing the aquatic insects that a variety of species feed on. Teeming with life, the ponds are a magnet for park visitors.

A Green Frog can be identified by the ridge that runs from its eye down the length of its body
This male Common Whitetail dragonfly was darting about, protecting its pond territory. At two inches long and conspicuously marked, Common Whitetails are eye-catching.
The Variable Dancer damselfly aka Violet Dancer is little more than an inch in length.

What are the clues to distinguishing a dragonfly from a damselfly? Dragonflies have thicker bodies than more delicate looking damselflies, hold their wings spread when perched, and their eyes touch — differences that can be seen in the above photos.


It seemed early to see a Water-lily in bloom, so this might have been a beginning of the season transplant. Such a pretty sight!

Blue-eyed bug

Unusual blue-eyed Periodical Cicada

A blue-eyed Periodical Cicada (Magicicada septendecim) is said to be a one-in-a-million rarity. I’m not sure if that statistic has ever been substantiated, but the cash reward for finding one is most certainly a myth, one that cycles every 17 years, just as reliably as these cicadas.

With 1-1.5 million cicadas per acre in the densest areas of Brood X concentration, according to entomologists who counted nymphs in soil samples in April when cicadas were nearing their emergence, it makes sense that I would eventually see a blue-eyed cicada somewhere in the neighborhood. This one was in my backyard.

Click here to learn more about the current Brood X Periodical Cicada phenomenon.

Typical red-eyed Periodical Cicada

Cicada epicenter

Brood X Periodical Cicadas (Magicicada septendecim)

It’s hard to imagine there’s a concentration of Brood X Periodical Cicadas anywhere in the eastern US greater than what is here on my patch in Maryland’s Piedmont. The combination of mature maple trees, ground that has been basically undisturbed for almost 100 years, clay soil, and a southern exposure seems to provide the perfect habitat. By my estimation, this is the sixth 17-year cicada emergence since this neighborhood was built — giving generations plenty of opportunity to expand their numbers.

Piles of discarded shells from newly molted cicadas are a common sight

When the entomologist predicted billions, they weren’t kidding. Cicadas in various stages are everywhere.

Brood X is the largest of the several Periodical Cicada broods found in the Mid-Atlantic area. The Brood X range is concentrated in central Maryland, southern Pennsylvania and northern Virginia.

Periodical Cicadas are fascinating and THE topic of conversation in the neighborhood.

Left to right: empty shell, newly molted, adult
Newly molted

Brood X Periodical Cicadas live as nymphs underground for 17 years, feeding on tree root sap and undergoing several growth stages. When they near their final adult stage and the soil temperature reaches 64 degrees, they emerge from underground, shed an exoskeleton exposing a vulnerable stage as they molt into adult form. It’s a short life above ground. Males call to attract mates. Females lay as many as 500 eggs in slits made in trees. Adults die soon after mating. After six weeks the eggs hatch and nymphs drop undetected from the trees and burrow underground to repeat the 17-year cycle. This massive-scale synchronized cycle is a wonder of nature.

Periodical Cicadas are native, harmless and benefit the ecosystem. They don’t bite or sting and, not to be mistaken for locusts, they don’t damage crops. Their massive numbers provide plenty of food for natural predators like birds, squirrels, raccoons and various amphibians while ensuring species survival. It’s a strategy called prey satiation. There is evidence that bird clutches are larger during cicada emergence years. Cicadas aerate and fertilize soil and the damage caused by egg-laying performs some natural pruning, although that pruning can be harmful to small trees and shrubs and unwanted by homeowners.

Every cicada nymph emerged from a tunnel like these
Expect to see another Brood X cicada emergence in 2038

It is said that male cicadas are the loudest insect in the world. Click here to listen to the din of calling cicadas on a hot, sunny afternoon. Warning: it’s loud!

Flashy birds on the trail

Pileated Woodpecker and Belted Kingfisher on the trail

Pileated Woodpecker. The lack of a red cheek stripe tells us this is a female.

The flashiest bird in the woods isn’t always the easiest to spot. This Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) was quietly foraging for insects on an old snag. Only the occasional sound of bits of wood debris hitting the forest floor gave her away.

Pileated Woodpecker probes for insects
Belted Kingfisher

On the other hand, this Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) made her presence known with a distinctive noisy rattle call. Even though this park is crisscrossed with streams, I’ve never spotted a Kingfisher here before. This female was disturbed by something. I wonder if she has a nest burrowed in the banks of the stream below.

Female Belted Kingfishers sport a rusty belly band

Five nests of five

Five seems to be the magic number on my bluebird trail this early May. There are currently five active Eastern Bluebird nests in the nest boxes I monitor, each with a clutch of five.

Take a look.

The eggs have hatched in two of the boxes. The Eastern Bluebird nestlings pictured are about six days old.

Clutches of four Eastern Bluebird eggs and young are typical on my nest box trail. I wonder if birds can anticipate the Brood X Cicada food bonanza that will be available here soon in Maryland’s Piedmont.

Note: All photos were taken quickly, without flash, as part of the monitoring process. The well-being of the birds is always paramount.

Woodpecker at work

Red-bellied Woodpecker excavates a nest cavity

For the last couple days, this male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) has been excavating a hole in a tree outside my door. When it hasn’t been digging, it has been calling, in hopes of attracting a mate.

His beak is the right tool for the job

Woodpeckers drill trees to feed on insects or sap, to noisily proclaim territory, or, as here, to excavate a hole for a nest. Woodpeckers are primary cavity nesters, meaning they excavate the holes they use for nesting. In contrast, bluebirds, tree swallows and a number of other birds are secondary cavity nesters, meaning they build their nests in abandoned nest cavities and naturally occurring holes in tree snags. Flying squirrels are also secondary cavity nesters.

Tree Swallow nestling last summer peeks from its nest in a tree snag

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are common and welcome sights and sounds in woodlands and backyards in most of the eastern United States. That bit of rufous coloring on its belly, visible in both photos, gives it its common name. While the names are sometimes confused, the Red-headed Woodpecker is a rarer species within the same range that sports a fully red head and neck.

Red-headed Woodpecker from a few years ago

Plant a tree — or a meadow. And see who visits. Happy Earth Day!

Heron finds a fish

Great Blue Heron with catfish

I had spotted this Great Blue Heron earlier in a hidden section of the marsh where I was birding. When I doubled back on my walk, I knew to look for it and was lucky to see the heron snag a catfish.

That’s a lot of catfish!

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to see the heron eat its lunch. It flew off when it heard the voices of others enjoying a morning walk on the trail.

Here are a couple views of another Great Blue Heron preening in the sunshine in the open area of the marsh — looking regal, then not so regal.

Great Blue Herons never fail to entertain.

Moonrise at dawn

The Moon with Jupiter and Saturn before sunrise

The waning crescent Moon rose about an hour before sunrise yesterday and appeared above a horizon washed in colors from indirect sunlight. Looking east over the Atlantic Ocean offered a great view.

While I often use “dawn” and “sunrise” interchangeably, technically, dawn is the period of twilight before the sun rises, when the atmosphere is scattered with indirect sunlight. The first light appears at “astronomical dawn,” when the sun is 18 degrees below the horizon. At “nautical dawn,” which begins when the sun reaches 12 degrees below the horizon, there is enough light to see the horizon and to still see the stars for navigation. Starting with the sun at 6 degrees below the horizon, “civil dawn” provides enough light to perform regular activities.

At sunrise, the sun touches the horizon

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