Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Lettered Sphinx Moth on the Window Screen

Lettered Sphinx Moth

I stopped by the Maxville Alternative School today to set up a date to take the students out to monitor bluebird boxes.

On the way back to my car,  Gwen Prom and I spotted this odd moth hanging on to the window screen near the light over the front door.  Its pumped-up shoulders reminded me of a scaled-down, brown-striped version of a TRANSFORMER (from the movie).

Lettered Sphinx Moth

Viewed from the side, the moth displays its abdomen arched over its back (scorpion-like).  I knew it was a moth, but what kind?  Other than "knowing" the big flashy species, my moth identification skills are woefully lacking.  So, with Gwen's help, I took three photos.

Lettered Sphinx Moth (with Gwen's Finger)

I emailed them to Marcie O'Connor, a local moth expert who lives on the other side of the coulees in southeastern Buffalo County.  She recognized our moth right away:  Lettered Sphinx

Armed with the name, I looked it up and found that while they are thought to be common, there are no photo records of this insect on for Wisconsin.

Lettered Sphinx, found in eastern North America, are one of the earliest to be out flying (and hanging on to window screens) in the spring.  Their green caterpillars feed on the leaves of grape and virginia creeper vines.

Mrs. Sweeney Points to the Lettered Sphinx

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck in Wisconsin

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck - Chippewa Falls, WI

I normally don't "chase" rare birds.  In fact, I've only done it twice.  The first time was back in 2002, when I saw a report of a summer Snowy Owl near the Menards Corporate HQ in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

Summer Snowy Owl © Mary Kay Rubey

It was only 50 miles from where I live, and I needed an excuse for a shopping trip to the nearby "big city" of Eau Claire.  I didn't know what to expect - but I didn't think I'd see a Snowy Owl.

But there it was... right where the report said it would be.

Summer Snowy Owl ©Mary Kay Rubey

A Snowy Owl in the summer is an extremely rare sight in Wisconsin.  But a Black-belled Whistling-Duck in Chippewa Falls?  Extremely rare too - only six records of this tropical bird in the Badger State.   Normally highly gregarious, this lone duck is approximately 1,500 miles from the northern-most limit of its normal range

US Geological Survey - Breeding Bird Survey data                 

I didn't think about making a special trip to Chippewa Falls to see a duck, but my Prius was due for an oil change - and Markquart Toyota just opened a new location - in Chippewa Falls.  

I went back to my email in-box to check the Wisconsin Birds listserv reports for an address and got the GPS coordinates (44.9187N, 91.5097W).  Wouldn't you know, that's less than 10 miles from Markquart Toyota.

Despite the weather (pouring rain and gray skies), I decided to look for a duck that - according to the USGS website - prefers tropical lagoons, marshes and streams with partially tree-covered margins; often near agricultural land. 

I was amazed to find the little wooded pond on County Road F.  It's on the east side of County F adjacent to the Wheaton Gas Metering Station.

The Pond - Looking north from the Gas Meter Station
Wheaton Gas Meter Station (on the east side of County K)

I scoured the little wooded pond.  No Whistling-Duck.  My husband, Tom, focused his binoculars on the flooded farm field on the west side of the road, across from the wooded pond.  "I see it, over there" he said, pointing to a tiny dot on a tiny peninsula in the flooded field.

I pointed my binoculars in the direction he was pointing, and then I spotted it.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

We watched the duck as the rain pelted my car.  It looked up a couple of times.  I shot a few photos from the car window.  

Yep.  It's a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, feeding in a flooded farm field in Wisconsin in April.

A Hognose Snake by the Side of the Road

Broad-winged Hawk Kettling Over Maxville

Spring visited the Lower Chippewa River Valley today.  Not a cloud in the sky.  Temps in the 60s.   I hopped in the Prius and headed out to see who's out - before spring goes into hiding again tomorrow.

And what a day it was!

Barn Swallows on Kings Highway.  Hawks kettling over the coulees - with surprisingly good looks at Broad-wings.   The midge emergence is over.  Only a few Yellow-rumps flitting around in the trees, hawking insects in the popping buds.  The first warbler wave has moved on.

Butterflies were out and flitting on Rustic Road 107.  Very flighty - difficult to get close enough for an identification.  Nearly impossible to get a good photo.

"Spring" Spring Azure
Mustard White
Gray Comma

I pulled over to take a photo of an orange butterfly and as I walked in front of my Prius, I discovered this big brown snake sunning itself in the grass.

Hognose Snake

I didn't recognize it right away, so I carefully moved in closer to take some photos.  As I did, the snake made like a cobra!  I kid you not.  Right in front of me.  Out came the cowl, then an audible "hissss" as the snake lifted its head off the ground and flicked its tongue out.

Eastern Hognose Snake
Eastern Hognose Snake
Eastern Hognose Snake
Eastern Hognose Snake
Eastern Hognose Snake

Eastern Hognose Snake

Eastern Hognose Snake

There shouldn't be any cobras in Wisconsin, and this snake had round eyes.   I knew it wasn't venomous.   But what is it?  

The "frightening" display and a stubby snout are all the clues I needed.  It's an Eastern Hognose also known as a "puff adder."   If the cobra routine doesn't scare you off, the Hognose might try its "roll over and play dead" routine.  This one didn't - it was all huff and puff.  

And then it took off and disappeared in the prairie grasses.  


Sunday, April 24, 2011

How Do Early Warblers Survive A Cold Spell?

Yellow-rumped Warbler

After a week of unseasonably cold, wet weather, I headed down to the river to see how the warblers were doing.  I was amazed to see swarms of Yellow-rumped Warblers in downtown Durand, along RR 107 to Meridean and along the Buffalo River in Alma.

They were on the ground, on the water, in the shrubs, low on tree trunks in the flooded riverways, in the tree tops, at my suet feeders and back at home - on my windowsill. 

They were eating suet and hulled sunflower chips at my feeders, dead insects on my storm window frame, poison ivy berries along the roadsides - and emerging insects along the edges of the river.  Versatile eaters!

I spent an hour or so watching them eat insects along Rustic Road 107.  At first, I couldn't tell what they were eating.  The mosquito-sized little black flies were so small I could barely see them.   They swarmed my windshield, and after I powered down the window - they were all over me too. 

Fortunately they weren't the biting kind, but other than that, I didn't have a clue as to their identity.  So I took this photo.

Warbler food on my knuckle

When I got home, I went to thinking it would be awhile before anyone would get back to me with an identification.  Wrong.  I clicked "uplink" at 5:35pm and three minutes later, the identity was in an email in my inbox:   Male midge, likely tribe Tanytarsini.

According to the University of Minnesota Chironomidae Research Group,  there are over 1,000 species of non-biting midges - and over 300 species in Minnesota.  Plenty of insect protein for migrating Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Warblers in an April "Winter Storm Warning"

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Sunday's weather was perfect - sunny and warm.  Yellow-rumped Warblers filled the leaf-less trees along the Lower Chippewa River in Durand.  Phoebes hawked insects and a Belted Kingfisher was back on the utility wire down by Little Bear Creek.

Chipping Sparrow

The Tyrone property on RR 107 was full of Chipping Sparrows and Lark Sparrows.  Barn Swallows skimmed over the prairies and Blue-winged Teal joined the puddle ducks in the bottom lands near Meridean.  We spotted Common Loons and Double-crested Cormorants down at Silver Birch Park.

But a day later, everyone's talking about the weather - the winter that just won't let go.  The sky started spitting snow around noon.   It isn't sticking, and as long as I don't have to drive anywhere, it's okay with me.

But what about the insect-eating birds that arrived this weekend?

How do the phoebes and warblers survive a couple of days of cold, wet weather? 

Migration is full of perils - weather, cars, window collisions, tower collisions, predators.

They find insects on buds and tree bark.  They eat fruits.

And some, like the Yellow-rumped Warblers, visit suet feeders.  At 7:47pm this evening, with the temperature hovering just above freezing, this male Yellow-rump discovered the peanut butter suet feeder in my back yard!

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Wood Frogs in a Breeding Frenzy

Wood Frog Air Sacs 

After the big thunderstorms last night, I hoped the rain would hold off today so I could check out the vernal ponds on the Chippewa River State Trail - where I spotted Wood Frogs in amplexus last March.   When I left the house around 11am, the sky was overcast and threatening, and the temperature had climbed up into the 60s.

Would the Wood Frogs be a quackin' today?

I parked the Prius on County M and walked up-river to the trail marker at Mile 26.

I've read that you can hear some frog calls from a mile away, but not today.  I was about 100 yards from the ponds before I heard the springtime noise made by boys:  a chorus of loud raspy quacks (Wood Frogs) interspersed with a few peep-peep-peeps (Spring Peepers) and an occasional trill (Western Chorus Frogs).

The pool was full of hundreds of Wood Frogs.  I scanned the water but I couldn't see them - at first.   The light was harsh and every time a cyclist rode by, the pond went silent.  I waited and waited.  Then they started up again.  Floating on the surface of the pools, Wood Frogs are relatively easy to spot.  So I focused on them.

Wood Frog in Duckweed

Wood Frog Inflating Air Sacs

It was mesmerizing.  Frogs chasing each other in a shallow vernal pond.  Splashing, sinking, swimming and quacking.

After sitting for an hour or so, I walked further down the trail, hoping to spot a Chorus Frog or a Spring Peeper.  I could hear them, loud and clear... but I still couldn't see them.

Then a frothing ball of Wood Frogs caught my attention.   It looked like they were all hanging on to one frog, who seemed to be drowning or dead.  I tossed a pebble at them, but they did not disburse.  What is going on here?

Five Wood Frogs in a Ball

When I got home, I "googled" Wood Frogs.  "Breeding can be stressful for females; plagued with the weight of multiple competing males, some females drown."  That's seriously stressful.

Another interesting fact:  Females lay only one egg mass.  Count the number of egg masses in a vernal pool and you get a good estimate of female numbers.

On the way back to my Prius... I spotted three "first-of-the-year" birds and one wildflower: Rusty Blackbird, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Field Sparrow and Bloodroot.

Rusty Blackbird
Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Cooper's Hawk Eating Roadkill

I was pulling out of my driveway earlier this week, when I noticed a pile of feathers on the shoulder of State Road 25.  Was it an owl?  I stopped and got out of the Prius for a closer look.  

the wings
No, it wasn't an owl.

the tail

I looked at it - from head to toe.  And I have to admit, I've never seen a bird foot quite like this one.

Toes with Odd Millipede-like Fringe

I had to look at the head (which resembled a chicken) to figure out what it was - a female Ruffed Grouse.  I've spent so much time looking for this species, and wouldn't you know it, I'd see one close-up right in my front yard!  

I didn't want to leave it along the road, as it might cause the death of a scavenger (a vulture, Bald Eagle or coyote), so I tossed it on the lawn where I could keep an eye on it.  Maybe I'd get lucky and see a scavenger go at it.

Here it is, three days later - and a big surprise.

Cooper's Hawk Eating a Ruffed Grouse

A Cooper's Hawk eating roadkill in my front yard!

Spring Flooding Along the Upper Mississippi River

Mississippi River Floodwaters on the Rise

The Upper Mississippi River has filled the bottoms along the dike road between Nelson, Wisconsin and Wabasha, Minnesota - and many of the farm fields in the area.  Over the past three days it's continued to rise.

I drove across the dike road Thursday afternoon and snapped the photo on the left.  Normally the Refuge sign is about 5-feet from the ground.  This morning, I had trouble finding it - it's totally submerged.

Looking Up-River at Beach Park

Beach Park, at the west end of Wabasha, MN is flooded and the campground empty of RVs.

CR 84 to Weaver Dunes

"Road closed" signs are up at Pembroke Ave and US 61 - by the AmericInn - and down in Kellogg at County 84, where the Mississippi River backed up into the wetlands and over the road.

County Road 84 in Kellogg

Tonight's forecast is rain.  More flooding is expected on the Upper Mississippi and on the Lower Chippewa River in Durand, Wisconsin.

Heading towards Floodstage in Durand