Monday, May 31, 2010

Red Spotted Purple Butterfly


I spent most of the afternoon cleaning my Prius - inside and out.  

I washed, then rinsed with an open hose, leaving puddles in my driveway.   As I moved away from the passenger side of the car to turn off the hose, I noticed a black and blue butterfly flitting around the puddles.  I opened the door to the back seat and grabbed my little SONY Cybershot, but the butterfly wouldn't let me get close enough for a diagnostic photo.

So I went into the house and grabbed my Canon SLR with an image stabilized 100-400 zoom lens.   The butterfly posed and I got the angles I needed for identification.


My first thought was - Black Eastern Tiger Swallowtail or Spicebush Swallowtail.  But I didn't see a "tail."  I had to look it up on on the new "Wisconsin butterflies" iPod app.  It was a Red Spotted Purple.

The caterpillar of this brushfooted butterfly resembles bird droppings (as does its chrysalis).  The caterpillar feeds on the leaves of poplars, willows, wild cherry and basswood (all common in my neighborhood).

The adults feed on rotted fruit, sap, mud, dung and carrion.

They have two broods a summer and the first adults appear in Wisconsin at the end of May.  This one was right on time.

If you see (and/or photograph) butterflies, report what you see on the Wisconsin Butterflies website.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

"blackbird singing in the dead of night"

I've had trouble getting a good night's sleep lately.  

Yah, there's the stress related to living in a time of economic uncertainty and environmental disaster (global warming, the Gulf oil spill).  And there's the bright light of a full moon.

But what's been robbing me of a good night's sleep the past couple of nights ... has feathers and a song.

With the uncharacteristic moderate temperatures and low humidity, I've been sleeping with my window open.   After finishing the final pages of Chuck Logan's Minnesota mystery, Vapor Trail Friday night, I was lulled to sleep by the comforting calls of the Great Horned Owl on the edge of the cornfield behind my house.  Who, who, who-whooo.

I was abruptly awakened at 2am by the loud and incessant repetition of the songs of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Blue Jay, oriole and kingfisher - right outside my window.

It wasn't a dream. 

A mockingbird?  No, their song phrases have 3 or 4 repetitions.

A Brown Thrasher? No,  they usually repeat their phrases twice.

My "black bird singing in the dead of night" sang his phrases only once. 

I got up, walked to the window and looked for the songster.  The noise was coming from a little shrub by the propane tank in my back yard.  Hmm.  I'll check it out when the sun comes up.

Then I forgot about it - until I was awakened again last night.

I went to bed around 11pm.  I could hear the call of the Great Horned Owl off in the distance, accompanied by a chorus of coyotes down by Misha Mokwa creek.  Bark, yip, yip, howl.

I was awakened from a sound sleep by loud bird chatter at 3am.  Deja vu.

I got up and went to the window.    The same monotonous phrases, this time strung together with a "meoww."

Whaddya know!  Mystery solved:  a Gray Catbird.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Warbling Vireo

As I got out of my car at County Rd M and the Chippewa River Bike Trail, I heard one of the many bird sounds I could not identify.  It sounded like a vireo - but the riparian canopy was full of grosbeaks, orioles, tanagers and warblers.

It was way up there, singing away, driving me to distraction.

I'd left my iPod at home.  All I had with me was my ability to pish.  So I pished... and pished .... and pished.  Finally, the songster flew down for a look at what was causing all the sibilance.

A gray, non-descript bird slightly larger than a warbler, with a white eye-line leaned over to get a look at me.  Then seemingly satisfied that my pish was not worthy of concern, it flitted back into the shadows of the green canopy and resumed singing.

According to Cornell's Ornithology Lab, the Warbling Vireo is "a drab bird of riparian woodlands, more easily heard than seen. It has no distinctive fieldmarks, but its rapid warbling song with a accented, high-pitched last note is relatively easy to recognize."

It's a complicated rapid jumble of rising and falling notes, usually ending in an accented, higher-pitched note.

The mneumonics (memory assisting phrases) of the bird song goes like this:    "If I sees you; I will seize you; and I'll squeeze you till you squirt; brigadier; brigadier; briga-tee."

Yep, that makes it easier to remember.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Blanding's Turtle on the Road

Just when I thought the "turtle in the road" season was over, I spotted a large bump on the highway - a mile south of where I live.  At first I thought it was a rock, or something that fell off a truck.  It was that big.  It wasn't until I'd dodged and passed it that I realized what it was.  A very, very big Blanding's turtle.

Note the yellow lower mandible - the diagnostic characteristic for this species.

I panicked.  It was "rush hour" in rural west-central Wisconsin.  Cars and trucks were zipping along State Road 25.  I stopped and turned around.  No time for a "k-turn."    I pulled a u-turn and stopped parallel to the turtle.  I held my breath as a sedan passed me.  I didn't want to see (and hear) the crunch/splat.

Fortunately, the driver missed the turtle (but not by much).  I hopped out and grabbed it, and hustled over to the side of the road, behind my car.

It was the biggest and oldest (the smooth shell implies age) Blanding's turtle I've seen to date.  Listed as threatened in Wisconsin, seeing one this size is a treat - but not on a major highway.

It takes 14-20 years for this "semi- box" turtle to reach sexual maturity - and the female lays an average of 8 eggs per clutch.  They can live 80 years in the wild!  With luck, this geriatric turtle will live to cross the road again.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


I noticed the first spittlebugs of the season yesterday when I was checking bluebird nest boxes over on Kings Highway.   I recognized the "spit," but I didn't know anything about the animal that made it.

Here's what I discovered:

The familiar "spit" is created by the nymphs of the Froghopper Bug (Cercopidae) of which there are more than 20,000 species world-wide.  It's been reported that the name "froghopper" comes from their resemblance to a frog.  I took a close look at a couple of nymphs in the spittle, but didn't see the "frog face."  (I'll have to find an adult to see if they're the source of the frog-like reference). 

The name might also have something to do with this bug's jumping prowess.   A neurobiologist in England recently discovered that the froghopper bug accelerates from the ground with a force of 400 times greater than gravity, making it the world's greatest leaper.

But back to the spittle.   The bubble froth only looks like spit - it's actually secreted from the other end.

So... what does crawling around in spit do for them?

The wingless nymphs hide in it.  (Ants are their major predator).  The fluid may also keep them hydrated and insulated while they feed on plant sap.

But like tent caterpillars, it's their "look" that gets some people worried.  They are, however, harmless to humans and don't cause any major damage to plants.  If you find them on your strawberries, flowers and trees - resist the temptation to pull out the pesticides.  If you feel you have to do something - just pull out the hose and spray them away.

Eastern Phoebe


I didn't notice the nest until I saw the drops of dark mud on the front steps.

Up until last year, an Eastern Phoebe had built an nest on the light by our kitchen door every summer for nearly a decade. 

While these flycatchers prefer "natural" nest locations, they've adapted to the human-built environment.   They look for locations (cliffs) often near water that are protected by overhangs - under bridges and buildings.

This nest is made of mud, green mosses and leaves - attached to the wall over the light fixture, under the eave.  The cup is lined with hair (cow?) and thin grasses.  The female builds the nest, lays from 3-8 eggs, incubates 16 days and feeds chicks for about 15 days.   She may double brood.  We'll see.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The New Chinese Panda in Durand!

At first I thought it was a mirage.

I'd seen stories about roving restaurant trucks on TV - in cities like Los Angeles.

Never in a million years did I expect to see this in Durand, Wisconsin - population 1,968.

I pulled over and parked.  It was real!   Good Chinese food in Durand.  Imagine that.

You'll find them in Durand only on Fridays, 11am -7:30pm.  Join the line on the south side of Main Street, in the vacant lot across the street from Ryans Sports Shop.  Big menu.  Try it.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Watching Falcons @ The Mayo Clinic

When my husband went in for tests at the Mayo Clinic this week, I was his designated driver and official hand-holder.  Normally, I don't look forward to hospital visits.  This time was different.  It would be the first time I'd be in Rochester, Minnesota when the Peregrine Falcons are nesting.  Maybe we'd get lucky and see them.

Our Mayo adventure started in the Damon parking structure.  We found a vacant spot on the 9th floor. The stress of "going in for tests" was building as the elevator from the parking area opened in the Clinic subway.

We headed towards the information booth.   I always take a look at the Mayo brothers history mural, but this time I was distracted by 13 glass chandeliers suspended from the Gonda Building ceiling.  Wow.  They were created by American glassblower Dale Chihuly, one of the world's foremost glass artists.  (For information about Mayo art tours, click here).

The information booth in the Gonda building is a short distance from the Mayo Building.  Heading down the subway corridor, we were distracted again - this time by music.  A Mayo doctor was standing in the atrium, belting out a song, accompanied by a woman masterfully playing a grand piano.  We listened as we weaved our way through the crowd.

I was looking for the alcove between the Pharmacy and the Patient/Visitor Cafeteria, where I hoped to see the Peregrine Falcon nest camera.  (The real thing - the box with the nesting birds - is a couple of blocks away, attached to the Guggenheim Bldg.)

We found it.  It was operational.  The birds were doin' their thing.

I wasn't the only person mesmerized by the live action drama of 2 falcons feeding their 3 chicks.  I came back several times throughout the day.    Just about everyone who walked by, stopped to watch and comment to whomever was standing there.

Mom and Dad falcon took turns eviscerating the birds they caught to feed their chicks (the hatching started May12). 

This week's big drama:  one egg did not hatch.  The female kicked it to the side of the box.  There's a runt - 2 of the birds are much larger than the 3rd.

Mom (who is bigger than Dad) has a gimpy right foot.  I asked the woman at the information desk if anyone knew.  Yah, sure, she said.  This female is Canadian (from Ontario) and she got in to a fight with another female.  The Canadian bird won, but hurt her foot in the fight, weeks ago.

Mom (above) is banded.  She's approximately twice the size of Dad.

The scientists who monitor the nest will be on-site, banding the birds on Wednesday, June 12.  They're also planning to bring a Peregrine Falcon for visitors to meet - up close at the Judd Auditorium (11:30 to noon). 

The Peregrine Falcon live camera is one of Mayo's greatest distractions.  But, unfortunately, I can't say the same for their birdfeeder video in the Pharmacy waiting room.

Seeing House Sparrows and Starlings kick seed out of feeders was not what I would call great viewing.  The folks in charge of visitor distraction at the clinic should be able to find better bird videos... maybe a live cam feed from the River Bend Nature Center...

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Tiffany Train - on a warm day

What a difference a week makes!

Sunny and warm (70º).  Birds all over the place, with few notable exceptions, hidden by all the foliage. 

Good looks at Yellow Warblers, Redstarts, Blue-winged Warblers and Common Yellowthroats.  Bald Eagles and Great Blue Herons flying overhead.

Great looks at Bellwort, Lupine, Wild Ginger, Virginia Waterleaf, Yellow Violet, Sand Cress, Yellow Pimpernel, Wild Geranium and Bedstraw ("sticky willy").

Sand Cress

Insects:  Red Admiral, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and several little orange butterflies that few too fast for an ID.
Red Admiral

The highlight of the trip came at the last stop at the Bald Eagle nest around 2:30pm.  Yes, we spotted the soon-to-be fledgling (a very big chick) on the nest.  While we were listening to the Motor Car Club members tell the story of the railway, I noticed a large bird zipping over the waters of the slough after a bright yellow butterfly.  A large swallow?

Something about the way that bird was flying reminded me of a bat.  Hmm... that's odd.  I watched with my binoculars.  It was a very large bat - and as it turned in the light, I realized it was a Hoary Bat, the largest bat in Wisconsin!

The Hoary Bat I met a decade ago

While it's unusual to see a day-flying bat of any species - it's not unheard of.   I spotted this species flying during the day once before more than a decade ago - in a snowstorm in Maryland.

The word "hoary" refers to its white-frosted fur.  This beautiful bat has a furred tail membrane.

Why was it out in the light of day?

It was probably hungry after a week of so-cold-the-bugs-aren't-flying temperatures.  It seemed to be chasing that yellow butterfly - and it put on quite a show, staying in view for several minutes as it flew out over the slough.

Hoary bats, along with Red Bats and Silver-haired Bats are solitary, tree-roosting species.  They're found throughout North America (and Hawaii).  These bats feed on large prey - moths and beetles.  They can eat 40% of their body weight in   Mating occurs in the fall and the females give birth to 2 pups in May or June.


Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Tiffany Train

Every spring and fall Wisconsin conservation organizations sponsor guided tours into the Lower Chippewa River on antique open-air trains operated by the Chippewa Valley Motor Car Association. Click here for the latest schedule of rides.

Terry Yust, Chippewa Valley Motor Car Association

I had a ticket to ride the "Birding by Mini-train Through the Tiffany Bottoms" today.  

It's one of the best (and most comfortable) ways to get close to both the neotropical birds migrating through the region -  and those staying to nest in the Tiffany Bottoms State Natural Area. 

I went to sleep last night dreaming of a morning full of warblers.

Prothonotary Warbler (2008)

The sky was full of dark clouds when I left my house at 6:30 this morning.  It was cold (35º) and windy.  Not a good day for insect-eating birds - and people who want to see them.

As far as the birdwatching went, it was not so good (only 40 species), but at least we didn't get "skunked."

The highlights were good views of Sandhill Cranes, Bald Eagles (flying and on a nest) and a Belted Kingfisher - hovering, then plunging headfirst, into the river.  We heard several sparrows and warblers, but for the most part, the birds we came to see spent the morning hunkered down.

By the time we got back to the parking lot on Thibodeau Road, the sun was threatening to brighten the sky, but the front didn't move out until later in the afternoon.

And wouldn't ya know, the best bird I saw all day was at my feeding station at dusk:  a Harris's Sparrow.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

May is Morel Month

Yesterday when I parked my Prius at the Chippewa State Trail, I noticed a man who seemed to be looking for something on the ground in a young stand of aspen across the road from the recently burned patch of prairie.  Curious, I waited until he returned to his pickup.  I went over and asked:  what were you looking for?

Morels, he said.  I'm a morel hunter and May is morel month. We found some big ones when we were laying cable along the road the other day.  Now's the time to look for them.

Maybe we'll get lucky and see some today, I said.

But I spent most of my walk on the trail, looking up - and the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers buzzing in the treetops picking at insects in the new leaf canopy.   No morels there (or along the trail).  But I did get some great looks at the gnatcatchers.

This morning, after spotting our first of the year (FOY) Baltimore Oriole and Rose-breasted Grosbeak at our bird feeders, Tom and I joined our friends Andrea, Rocco and Skylar for a ride across the river through Weaver Dunes in Kellogg, MN.  Rocco wanted to see turtles.

While I didn't expect to see any reptiles - it was too cold and windy - I was confident that with 5 pairs of eyes, we'd surely see something to make the trip worthwhile.

And we did.

Great looks at Lark Sparrows, bluebirds and Chipping Sparrows.

But it was when we stopped to look at Hoary Puccoon, that Rocco made my day.

He had wandered ahead of us, along the shoulder of the dirt road through the dunes.   Then he stopped and bent over, close to the ground.

Hey, he shouted back at us - look at this!  A mushroom!

Morchella -  morel 
Finding our first morel was unexpected.  But, we quickly learned, once you find one, finding several more is relatively easy.

If you want to learn more about Wisconsin mushrooms, take a look at the Wisconsin Mycological Society website.

If you want to eat some - head over to Muscoda, Wisconsin for the 38th Annual Morel Mushroom Festival (May 15 and 16).

Before calling it a wrap, we stopped off for an ice cream cone at the creamery in downtown Nelson, Wisconsin (population 395).   As we got back into the van, Andrea spotted a FOY Gray Catbird, sitting on a bare branch - right in front of us. 

Ten minutes later, we pulled in to our driveway, and we spotted another FOY - a Ruby-throated Hummingbird at our feeders.

A perfect end to a great day along the Lower Chippewa River.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Spring Wildflowers and Neotropical Migrants

The thermometer hit 78º this afternoon.

Wildflowers are blooming.  Trees are leafing out.  Spring is bursting out all over the Lower Chippewa valley. 

T. flexipes Declining Trillium

Smilacina stellata  Starry False Solomon's Seal

 Trilliums and False Solomon Seal are in bloom.

Cliff Swallows have returned to the Durand riverfront Sunday.  They got right to it with rebuilding their mud nests.   Bank Swallows arrived yesterday.  Tree Swallows continue to battle with starlings and House Sparrows over nesting holes. 

Yellow Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers arrived today - and along with them, the Yellow and Yellow-rumped Warblers. 
Chipping Sparrow

House Wren

The ubiquitous Chipping Sparrows and House Wrens are making noise and flashing their feathers - setting up their territory and building nests.