Monday, June 29, 2009

The Yellow-throated Vireo, the Fritillary and Me

I laughed as I typed that title. What has prompted this post is Bird Photography Weekly #44, a meme that I have participated in since its inception. I wanted to post a species that I hadn't posted before. But then, I can't think of the Yellow-throated vireo without also thinking of butterflies and thistle. I'll come back to this.
On May 30th I visited Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville and had lunch with friend, Stephen Lyn Bales, a naturalist, fellow nature blogger and interpreter at Ijams. During our picnic lunch, this Yellow-throated vireo was singing pretty continuously and Stephen Lyn identified him by song. Catching a glimpse of the bird, I snapped a few images and the one below gave me the visual confirmation that I needed to find him in my Peterson's field guide. The vireos are new to me, but it seems this is my vireo year. Within the last month, I have seen and heard the Yellow-throated and the Blue-headed vireos and heard the song of the Red-eyed vireo.
I found some neat information in my Atlas of Breeding Birds of Tennessee about Yellow-throated vireos and cowbird predation. It doesn't always go the cowbird's way. "The Yellow-throated Vireo is frequently parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds and may occasionally build a new nest floor over a cowbird egg. [!] ....I have three times observed adult vireos feeding fledgling cowbirds....On 28 June 1986 a pair of vireos was seen fighting off a female cowbird attempting to approach the vireo's nest."--Charles P. Nicholson.

I also enjoyed the nest description from the atlas: "The nest is built of bark strips, plant fibers, and grasses held together with spider webs and lined with fine grasses or hair. The outside is decorated with lichens, moss, and masses of spider webbing, and Bent (1950) described it as the handsomest nest of any vireo." The account also reports that both the male and female sing frequently while incubating. (I love this book!) And that brings me to the thistle. Between the table where we ate and the vireo singing, there was a garden of bull thistles with sunlight and butterflies dancing on the blossoms. I could barely eat lunch for chasing the butterflies with my camera. And as I looked through the lens, I got an intimate view of the fritillary's proboscis as it probed the blossom and that fun little insect expression!
This only makes me want to know more, like where exactly is the nectar in that bull thistle blossom and how does that prob get to it? The more I watch, the more fascinating nature becomes and the more it sparks curiosity. This could keep me going for days!
And below, some Columbine blossoms that I passed along the way. Already past their prime, they were hanging like delicate beauty bells among the stiffened pods that are broadcasting seed for the next generation.
Linked to Bird Photography Weekly #44, at to promote the conservation of our world's birds.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Red-shouldered Hawk Territory--V

I am having to shift creative focus, from wildlife viewing and sketching, to sending out submission letters for my novel. Why spend all that time writing it, if I don't pursue publication, right? I've always planned to do that. I simply needed to hold it for a while, the way you hold an infant close to you when its newly born. I am a writer as well as an artist. And though every publisher will tell you that more than one focus scatters your interest, it can't be helped. There is truth in this. Dividing your time is a challenge. But now that I have discovered who I am, I refuse to go forward leaving either behind. And so there is this dance, this back and forth journey, both creative endeavors, both requiring deep commitment, both rewarding in and of themselves. The hawks. Yes, I visited them yesterday. Neither of the adults were around and as I ventured into the nest yard, I felt its emptiness, as though no one were home. But knowing this was probably my last opportunity to see the juvenile, I stayed the duration of four hours and visited the gardens and sketched while waiting. In time, a juvenile began calling in the nest area. I saw him in flight several times, though when he perched, I could never locate him through the leaves. He returned to the nest area, flying within it from perch to perch, then exceeded its boundaries to cross the road and travel to neighboring areas, noted both visually and by the distance and direction of his solicitous calls. Though he is seen from time to time by the residents, it has become less and less likely that I will see the hawk family. And so, I will now devote my hawk watching time to using the inspiration they've given me to finish my sketchbook and select some favorite images to paint, all of which I will share with you as they are completed.In the meantime, I want to introduce you to several other Red-shouldered hawk lovers and observers that I have met along the way. This has been another amazing part of the journey, the connection that blogging has given me to others who have enjoyed similar experiences and captured these in their own unique ways.

Leonard is a professor and journalist in Marietta, GA. You must visit his video and though the outcome of his story is uncertain at this time, mobbing is a turnabout reality for hawks, one in which nature provides for the predated as well as, the predator.

Mary Howell Cromer lives in LeGrange, KY. She launched her blog, Red-shouldered Hawks of Tingsgrove this week to display her journal and photos of the Red-shouldered hawks that she has spent hours observing the past several years. She has experienced both happy and sad endings, as well, and given aid to the parents a time or two. Don't miss her fun images of the juveniles.

And Jay at Down to Earth, created a wonderful diary post about her experiences with Red-shouldered hawks living in and around her property in eastern North Carolina. Visit her beautiful images, including a juvenile visiting the bird bath.

And last, but certainly not least, you must visit Larry Jordan's Red-shouldered hawks at Birder's Report for a northern California look at this beautiful species. To see my entire series of posts on this family of Red-shouldered hawks, click this link. The above images were taken at various times during my observations. The sketch is of the female with prey brought to her by the male. The second image is the male taking the remains of the female's meal to another perch to eat. The dragonfly is a ballerina ! a very small male Blue dasher. The perched hawk image is the male; the hawk in flight, one of the adults.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Black-throated Green Warbler

I can't think of a better way to get acquainted with a new bird than to sketch it. In fact, studying images and field guides while trying to get colors, feathers, bill shapes and other features at least close, seemed to endear this warbler to me even more.
And while taking images only intended to help identify her, it was another pleasant surprise to find that I had captured her with a worm in her bill.
Visits with the tiny wood-warblers are brief at best, their movements busy and quick, unless of course, you have a male singing. This sweet female was foraging in the rhododendron brush along the Look Rock trail of the Foothills Parkway in east Tennessee, a scenic highway that winds through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Native Carolina rhododendron in bloom on the trail.

My Tennessee breeding atlas says: "The breeding biology of the Black-throated Green Warbler in Tennessee is poorly known.....Elsewhere in the warbler's range, it nests at heights of from near ground level to 22 m...." I couldn't help but wonder if she had a nest somewhere in that thicket.
As you can see in the above image, the female's throat is whitish rather than black. But the male of the species has a promient black throat providing a rich contrast to the olive and yellow head.
She was a sweet surprise for a 90-degree, muggy summer solstice hike on Father's Day. And because I had the good fortune of being with an experienced birder, I also became more familiar with several other warblers by song, the Chestnut-sided, Hooded, Pine and Worm-eating warblers. Close by, we also enjoyed the persistent singing of both Red-eyed vireos and Blue-headed vireos. In all, we saw or heard 20 species.
In the image below from Look Rock tower, you can see a few of the mountain ridges through the mist.
Warblers--another reason to love the mountains.

Linked to Bird Photography Weekly #43 at, bringing awareness to the conservation of our world's birds.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Tufted Titmouse Fun

It is comforting to know that nature is everywhere, that we can enjoy it where ever we are, both the unusual and the 'ordinary'. When you spend time with whatever is plentiful around you, your enjoyment naturally becomes richer and deeper and nothing seems ordinary anymore. Juvenile Tufted titmouse.

Such has been the nature of my recent enjoyment of the Tufted titmouse family that frequents my patio. The squeals and antics of the juveniles, both begging to their parents and learning to forage for themselves, have given me many smiles. Adult, Tufted titmouse. Mostly distinguishable by behavior but also subtle differences in coloration.

There are two hemlocks near the patio, with thickly needled limbs that drape nearly to the ground. These limbs provide a wonderful refuge for foraging and shelter for the inquisitive bird that wants to approach the feeder.

And titmice are curious, vocal and welcoming. Especially if they've associated your presence with the suet and seeds they enjoyed in the winter. And maybe there's a bit more enthusiasm with demanding, hungry mouths to feed.
When I have time to sit for a while and enjoy the morning air, my first smile comes with the arrival of the titmouse family. They seem to pop up from every limb, the juveniles calling out with their eager, "zhree, zhree, zhree, zhreeaaal", that last note being more of a squeal than a note.

After being fed by a parent, this juvenile dropped down into the ivy to forage for himself among the leaves, looking up ever so often to check with a parent.

"Hey, Mom, look at me!"

This mom certainly felt proud...

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

An Impressive Dragonfly!

I didn't want to leave my last visit with the Red-shouldered hawks without showing you another inhabitant of their territory. This was one huge dragonfly! And I marveled not only at his size but that I didn't recall having ever seen one of this kind before. Not only that, but as I was photographing him, my friend drove into the driveway. The rush of air and movement disturbed him from his perch, but instead of flying away, he flew right into the air turbulence and toward the vehicle. Only when the air disturbance stopped did he come back to a similar perch and rest for a moment.
This is not a faint-of-heart predator! I think he is a member of the Clubtail family and possibly a species called, Dragonhunter. But beyond that 'possible' ID, I can't venture. Even though I have always found dragonsflies magical and have three books on the subject, I still know very little about them. However, everytime I see a new one, I want to dive more deeply into reading about them.
Of the Clubtails, my Stokes, Beginner's Guide to Dragonflies says: "The clubtails are one of the most diverse and challenging groups of dragonflies in the world....for many closely related species, even a good look at all of these features will not suffice; only an in-hand examination of anatomical features will permit certain identification. Even experts must let many pass simply as "clubtail species."
Having read that, I know my limitations. But I can readily say he was gorgeous! When he was whirling around in the turbulence, I found myself primed to duck if he came my way. This made me laugh. I've never had that reaction to a dragonfly before. This guy was more like a helicopter!

Note added June 18: This dragonfly was in the 3 inch range, almost double the size of more common dragonflies. I was delighted to receive a postive ID confirmation from Martin Hagne of Weslaco, TX, who agrees this is a Clubtail Dragonhunter. Read his interesting note in the comments section.

And before I leave the subject, if you haven't already discovered Amila's blog, Gallicissa, pay it a visit. Not only is Amila an expert guide for birders, but he loves dragonflies and has created a wonderful pond in his Sri Lankan backyard where he studies dragonflies and other critters and posts beautiful macro images.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Red-shouldered Hawk Juvenile

I don't have beautiful photographs to show you, but I have seen the juvenile Red-shouldered hawk and can show you some sketches. I can also show you a fuzzy image or two.
I thought about entitling this post, "leaves, leaves, leaves!" But each time I think about complaining about what I can't see because of the leaves, I remind myself that this incredibly thick canopy protected the nest and its young from sun, wind, rain and interference perfectly. And this old-growth, thick forest is the habitat of these amazing Red-shouldered hawks.
The real fun of this visit was the amazing moment of seeing the juvenile, a stationary mass that on passing glance as I lowered my binoculars, looked like a clump of fallen leaves. That I spotted him at all was the unexpected peak of Friday's visit. Seeing him clearly confirmed what I could only speculate before, that he/she has fledged and is flying from branch to branch within the nesting territory but not yet hunting. On a prior visit, I witnessed the male's strike and heard the calling of what I believed to be two juveniles as the male brought the prey to the nest. The parent then flew to the back of the nest house. This was another moment of lucky timing. My reading confirms this is typical care of hawk young at this age of maturity. The juveniles are now 48-51 days old. The parents leave the juveniles alone for much of the day, visiting only long enough to drop off prey. Even though the image above is not clear, you can still see a small amount of white and brown streaked breast feathers.
Sketchbook note: "I could not have been more surprised. I was looking at the nest through my binoculars and noticed what I thought was a clump of leaves. A second look and I discovered this beautiful juvenile perched on a low branch near the nest. Today marks 48 days counting from April 26 when I first saw a nestling. The parents hunt now, drop prey off and leave again. Although I heard calling in the distance, the adults did not return during my 3- hour visit."

Linked to Bird Photography Weekly #42 at to promote the conservation of our world's birds and the habitat they live in.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Welcome Home Downies

I was only gone a few days, but I made fresh suet when I returned and what happened next made me laugh. I could hear the birds gathering as soon as I put it out, obviously remembering winter time servings.
I looked up from the blue jay in the previous post and found these two beautiful juvenile downies hanging from the feeder together. As you look at the images that follow, you will see the one on the left plunged her beak into the suet cake so eagerly that it came back coated in dough. She made a few attempts to peck at the dough afterward but then began to look a bit bewildered. "Okay, I'm headed for a good ole tree trunk to get this mess off my nose!" Meantime her buddy had the feeder to herself for a few minutes before she too flew to the tree. In this image you can see her juvenile belly speckles more clearly.
Sweet, sweet Downies!

A special word of caution about feeding suet in the summer. Suet made from lard and/or peanut butter is rich in protein. Unlike winter, there are many other protein rich foods available in the spring and summer. Because suet is a tasty treat, birds may over indulge and develop gout, a very painful swollen condition in their feet. Feed summer suet sparingly. Consider it a special and limited treat for both you and your backyard birds.

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For the Love of It...

...the sage sees heaven reflected in Nature as in a mirror, and he pursues this Art, not for the sake of gold or silver, but for the love of the knowledge which it reveals.
Sendivogius (1750)

Your Uncapped Creativity...

Your Uncapped Creativity...
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. You must keep that channel open. It is not for you to determine how good it is, nor how valuable. Nor how it compares with other expressions. It is for you to keep it yours, clearly and directly." ----the great dancer, Martha Graham