Monday, November 29, 2010

Reminiscing about robbers

Robber flies, that is.

Every year brings something new to my proverbial radar. New birds to learn, both by sight and by ear. New butterflies to learn.  New flowers to learn. New dragons and damsels to learn. And new flies. I was vaguely aware of robber flies before this summer, mainly because I had read about them on a the very educational blog of a fellow Ohioan.  Still, reading is one thing. It doesn't replace the feeling of experiencing these creatures for yourself. This summer I had the luck to be able to examine a couple of them at close range.

Quoting from the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America: "[Robber flies] are to other insects what falcons are to other birds: swift predators on the wing."  They are usually distinguished by their "bearded" face, and also by the fact that the top of their heads is concave between the eyes.

A Robber Fly, most likely belonging to the genus Promachus, or the Giant Robber Flies. Promachus is translated from the Greek as "who leads in battle."

This robber caught my eye because it was darting about. When I first saw it I thought maybe it was a dragonfly based on its size, but I knew it wasn't flying right to be a dragonfly. Closer inspection ensued when it landed on the leg of our patio table, where it remained for some time. At this time I was able to make the positive ID. It was tame for a flying insect, and stayed in place despite the fact that my camera lens came within inches of it. It was, undoubtedly, scanning the air around it for a potential meal, and was either too preoccupied to care or simply didn't feel threatened by me or my camera. Interestingly, a small bug (I can't remember what kind at this point) landed and walked right past it, and the robber didn't budge. I'm not sure if it considered the other bug an inferior meal, of if it just didn't see it all.

In these images you can get a better look at the characteristic "beard."

I sat with this fly for probably close to 10 minutes, but never got to observe it hunting. I went in the house for a bit, and when I came back it was gone. Maybe next year, if I'm lucky, I'll get to watch the hunting process.

I came across another robber a few weeks later, but this one was dead. I found it in Dave's truck, and it was MUCH smaller than the one I found on the patio table. Suffice it to say they come in a variety of sizes. The one pictured above was easily as long as my index finger. This other robber was about the size of the first joint of my thumb (from tip to knuckle).

Itty bitty Robber Fly

Compared to my finger tips, you can see how small this robber is

With winter less than a month away, the only insects I have to keep me occupied currently are the poor half-dead flies buzzing around the windows in our house, and the occasional spider in a corner. I won't be seeing anything like this again until next summer, I reckon. Yet another reason for me to prefer the warm months over the cold ones.

Until we meet again, robber...

Monday, November 15, 2010

The season of counting has begun!

When I was a young'un, one of my favorite things to do this time of year was leaf through the Service Merchandise catalog (and maybe the JCPenny catalog, too) and look at all the toys that I could ask Santa to bring me for Christmas. I could easily spend hours looking at the same pages over and over, memorizing all the Barbie cars and houses, and cataloging all of the Star Wars action figures that I hadn't collected yet.

Once Christmas was over, though, that was it. I had some new toys to play with, but winter would drag on without much new to look at, and those toy catalogs were gone from my mind by December 26th.

Now, as a grown-up kid, I have a hobby that takes the place of poring over those pages and pages of toys. And it lasts way beyond the holiday season - in fact, it lasts almost until spring! I'm talking about Project FeederWatch, the Cornell Lab or Ornithology citizen science project that got me hooked on birding. This winter marks my 6th season of watching and counting birds and reporting my findings to the Lab. It's so much fun, and it really gives me something to look forward to in the winter. I'm quite prone to the winter "blahs," so having this incentive to look out the window and interact with the natural world is really a wonderful thing.

FeederWatching can be addictive, and may cause you to spend hours watching your feeders. If you're not careful, you might burn a dinner or two because you're otherwise occupied watching the fighting going on between the Pine Siskins and American Goldfinches on the thistle feeder. (Not that I would know anything about birds distracting me from cooking!)

A rare moment when Pine Siskins and American Goldfinches are eating quietly side by side. How many of each bird can you find in this picture?

FeederWatching is easy. Just pick 2 consecutive days out of the week that are convenient for you, and count for as long as you are able. Wait at least 5 days, and then count again for 2 more consecutive days. Lather, rinse and repeat from now until April 8, 2011, reporting your observations to Cornell along the way. My counting schedule is always a 1-2 punch of Saturday and Sunday, simply because those are the 2 days per week when I can spend the greatest number of daylight hours watching my feeders.

This winter I expect to see old friends for sure, and hopefully a few new ones, too. All of our 3 common woodpecker species (Downy, Hairy and Red-bellied) were accounted for this past weekend, and the two common "flocking" species at our feeders (Mourning Dove and American Goldfinch) came out with relatively strong numbers.

The Winter Finch Forecast by Ron Pittaway (hosted on eBird) has given me some idea of specific finch species to look for. One species I could expect to see this winter that I haven't seen before is the Common Redpoll. This would not only be a new feeder bird, but a life bird, as well. According to Pittaway's article, Common Redpolls could "irrupt" (defined as: to increase rapidly and irregularly in number) into the northern U.S. this year for 2 reasons: their food source in northern Canada is scarce this year, and it was an exceptionally good breeding year for the species, with double- and triple-broods reported in parts of Canada, so competition for food will be even greater than usual. I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for this species! BULLETIN: I was just alerted to a map on that is tracking the movements of certain species, such as the Common Redpoll, into Ohio for the 2010-2011 winter season, and they have already been spotted in some of the northern-most counties. (Thanks for the tip, Jim!)

Another finch species of interest is the Purple Finch, which is also expected to be plentiful in the northern U.S. this winter, again because their major food source up north is not in great supply. I don't usually see them until late December or January, if they show up at my feeders at all, but I spotted a male Purple Finch dining on sunflower seeds at my feeder a little over a week ago, which is super early for me. I hope he comes back soon so I can count him for FeederWatch.

I am now confident that I will be seeing Pine Siskins at the feeders this winter.  My first encounter with this species was during the 2008-2009 FeederWatch season, but they were not present during last season's count. Even though Pittaway's article doesn't predict them coming down into the northern U.S. (food sources up north are excellent), I have heard "chatter" suggesting that they are already working their way into Ohio for the season. The above-mentioned map on shows that they are already farther south by this point in November than they were for the entire season in 2009-2010. Apparently they have been spotted in Athens county already.  So riddle me this:  If their food source is abundant up in Canada, what could possibly make them want to come down this way for the winter?  Hmmmmm...

"Hey, Heather says she's got plenty of thistle and black-oil sunflower seeds at her place! Maybe we should go see her!"

"What's that, you say? Party at Heather's? Well, I'll get my sassy little self right on over there!"

So if you are looking for something cool and fun to do this winter, something that will engage you with life right outside your door, consider counting birds and contributing valuable data as a citizen scientist.

This Tufted Titmouse says, "We will stand and be counted!"

Join Project FeederWatch today!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Fields of gold

The frantic pace of working on the guestudio has finally slowed down. We have had our first official guests stay with us, and since their departure, we haven't felt the need to push so hard to get on with the finishing touches. Several weeks ago, though, we were still working hard on the place during our off-hours from work. One beautiful Sunday I decided I HAD to take time off and go enjoy the beautiful weather we were having. I needed to be alone with the wind and the sun and the crickets and the birds, to recharge my batteries.

I took my camera along with me, of course, and took lots of pictures of the beautiful golden grasses, but I also spent a lot of time just sitting. Absorbing. Appreciating. Admiring. Amazed.

There was a delightful breeze, and as I sat in the sunny field, I noticed the hundreds of cobwebs that were streaming to and fro among the seed heads of the grass. Not those big round-and-round shaped-webs you normally think of, but simple strands. The grasses, upon close inspection, were all encased in the delicate streamers, some of them even tied together by the webs.

I crawled around among the grasses, and spent long minutes on my belly taking photos at all different angles. My nose picked up hints of clover, and even though the grass had not been cut for many weeks, it smelled fresh despite its age.

While the notion of sitting alone - just sitting and being - in a field (or in the woods, or on the water) for any amount of time would seem strange to some, it is an activity that I relish, and I wish I could do it all day. The longer I sit, the calmer I feel, and the more connected I feel, both to the earth and to myself.

Sitting is a passive activity, but even though my body is not doing much, my mind is quietly churning and digesting. Depending on what I am contemplating, I might even consider it to be a form of play. I do, after all, consider it to be "fun" when I am doing it in this capacity. It's a type of fun I would encourage everyone to engage in.

Friday, November 5, 2010

When friends help you learn

I like throwing quizzes out there from time to time, and I think I stumped a few of you with my nut photo in the last post:

A couple of you, though, correctly identified it as a Beech nut hull. Good eyes, Jain and Nina! To be fair, anyone reading the post who lives west of Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, or Louisiana, or most of Canada (except the extreme eastern-most portion of the country) would not be familiar with the American Beech tree or its nut because it only grows in the eastern third of the continent.

I made this quiz a little tougher than it should have been, because the nut hull was photographed from a funny angle, and it was seriously sprung open. I don't know that I have any photos of a closed Beech nut, because they all seem to be open and empty by the time I find them.

I want to thank Ruthie and Julie, who both guessed different species of hazelnuts. After doing a little research, I can understand their guesses. The reason I am thanking them is because they helped me to identify the American Hazelnut. When images of that shrub's fruit popped up on my computer screen today, I said, "No way!" Ladies, you helped me identify something that I photographed 2 years ago but had no idea how to begin looking up.

American Hazelnut fruit, photographed August 16, 2008

I was very excited about this, because these photos were taken just down the road from my house. I had no idea hazelnuts grew in Ohio, let alone right in my own neighborhood! I walked down the road this afternoon and found the plant in the spot I remembered. I was able to locate and harvest a handful of nuts, but I would say most had already been snatched up by the local wildlife. Next spring I will be on the look-out for the teeny, tiny female flowers that the shrub produces (the male flower is a catkin, some of which were still hanging from the branches), and will try to harvest some more nuts earlier in the season before the squirrels, chipmunks, deer and Blue Jays, to name a few, beat me to them. I read today that they grow well in the shade, and are good understory plants. Hmmmmm.... we have lots of shade and understory plants growing on our property. Could be something to try establishing in our land.

Thanks, friends, for helping me learn something new!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Can you name it?

Name that nut!

You better get it right, or Dave's going to throw a pile of leaves at you!