Sunday, August 30, 2009

A papa and a juvenile American Goldfinch dining in a thistle patch…

I was photographing a dragonfly yesterday at VOA, when I heard the happy calls of several American Goldfinches flying overhead. I looked up just in time to watch a small flock of five skim across the field, bobbing up and down in that sweet roller-coaster flight of theirs, only to quickly drop out of sight. As I turned back to the dragonfly, I discovered he too was gone, so I moved on. Walking down the grass corridor, I was flanked on both sides by almost overwhelming meadow sounds--katydids, grasshoppers, and everything else that lives in a meadow in August. I would stop every now and then to listen to their music--so many insects singing out because they could, blending, chirping, singing in waves. Sharp winds were ushering in a cold front, and huge gusts occasionally would roar through the grasses and goldenrod, trying with little effect to drown out the insects' persistent singing in the remaining heat. Even with all that noise, the silver notes of the goldfinches rose above, and as I took the right fork of a path carved through the middle of the meadow, I could tell they were near. Calling back and forth to each other, their cheery “cheer-ee” song kept repeating. I stopped and watched, and then I saw them tucked among the leaves in a thistle patch, three juveniles and two adult males. The babies were sitting on stalks shaking their wings and begging for food, but the papas would have none of it and continued to pluck thin thistle seeds from the flower heads for themselves. I guess today was the day the papas decided the babies were ready to feed themselves, or maybe the dads were just hungry. No females were around. They were probably busy building a nest for a second brood. Goldfinches can nest into September around here.

I'm hungry. Feed me!

I'm hungry. Feed me! Look, I'm shaking my wings!

I'm hungry. Feed me!

I'm hungry. Feed me! I'm still shaking my wings!
Can't you see me?

What? Can't a papa eat in peace every now and then?

This evening while I was making dinner, I heard that familiar call outside my kitchen window, and when I looked out, there they were--another small family of American Goldfinches! The juveniles were flapping their wings and begging for food too. I'm was happy to see a family fledged around here.

For bird photography from around the world, visit:

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Beauty and the bee...

I was photographing this thistle when a bee flew in, landing in just the right place for a photo!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The stylish pleats on a dragonfly’s wings provide more than just a snappy look!

When I was out in the field photographing the dragonflies, I didn’t know their wings were pleated. I just knew their wings were gorgeous and I wanted a closer look at them, so I started focusing the lens on the wings at different angles, trying to capture the patterns of veining and their thin, delicate beauty. It wasn't until I downloaded the photos and started studying them that I noticed the wings were pleated like corrugated steel or cardboard!

If you look carefully, you can see pleats in the middle of the wing.

Looking straight on, it's easy to see the zig-zaggy ripples.

Intricate, lacy veining...beautiful.

When you're not zoomed in you barely
notice the corrugation, but it's there!

Of course I wanted to know why those wings were zig-zaggy, so I did a quick Google search. The first article that popped up was "A computational study of the aerodynamic performance of a dragonfly wing section in gliding flight," by Abel Vargas, Rajat Mittal and Haibo Dong. That sounded promising, so I read it and found some pretty cool info. If you want to read the entire paper, click here. Published on May 23, 2008, these aerospace engineers from The George Washington University found through a simulated study of pleated and non-pleated wings that the pleats in a dragonfly's wings are a unique adaptation, or in their words, "an ingenious design of nature," that can help produce more lift than a smooth wing. The reason being air circulation between the pleats results in less drag, which is good for gliding (and dragonflies do a lot of that!).

Isn't that cool? What started as an attraction to the lacy, delicate beauty of the veining and iridescence of the wings, turned into another AWE of Mother Nature. She always does know what she’s doing……

I wonder if I can design a super-duper paper airplane with this information! :-)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A dragonfly! My guess...a Brown-spotted Yellow-wing, commonly called a Halloween pennant!

I headed over to Voice of American (VOA) Park today. It had been over two weeks since I'd been there, and I couldn't wait to visit the High Meadow. I've really become attached to the open grassland habitat. I love the wildflowers, the sun, and the insect sounds. Today I was hoping for butterflies. The last time I went looking for butterflies at VOA, I found a Henslow's Sparrow and a Sedge Wren instead (so I'd be happy with those too). I found neither, instead, I photographed my first dragonfly!

Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina)
I love that face...big red eyes, freckles,
and what looks like a happy smile! ;-)

I know nothing about dragonflies. I didn't even know what they ate. After a quick Internet search I found they were carnivores and ate a lot of mosquitoes and other flying insects. I can't believe that as old as I am, I've never studied a dragonfly! They are GORGEOUS when viewed up close. Unfortunately, I still haven't gotten a macro lens, so I shot these with my 70-200mm with the 2x TC, catching a bit of detail, but not as much as a macro lens could do. The longer lens does capture cool photos by blurring parts of the wing and sharpening others, so I guess it's a good effect.

It was very breezy, but he (or she) clung to the stalk
with ease, letting those delicate-looking wings move
freely in the wind. I don't know if he was moving them
to adjust for the wind or if the breeze was simply
blowing through them like leaves on a tree.
(Either way, it was beautiful...and peaceful.)

There were five dragonflies I followed around for about 1.5 hours. Every one loved this plant and would return to these little stalks to ride out the breezes. At the time I didn't know what dragonflies ate, and I wondered what they liked about these plants scattered all over the meadow...I even wondered if they were eating the plant, but they didn't seem to be moving their mouths, so I assumed they were just resting. Soaking up the intense heat in the dry meadow, it was hard to imagine these beautiful creatures started life in the water. Their gorgeous wings were definitely made to shine in the sun...

Hang on tight little Halloween pennant!

Sun glistens off his wings producing
iridescent colors mixed with bits of gold.

I know I'll be heading to the bookstore tomorrow to find more info on dragonflies. A few are in my National Audubon Society Field Guide to Insects and Spiders, but I need more details!

Tom of The Ohio Nature Blog gave me the common name of Celithemis eponina, Halloween pennant, and recommended "Dragons and Damsels of NE Ohio" by Larry Rosche and Judy Semroc. He says it's one of the best dragonfly guides every published. I'll order it. It's available through the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Thanks, Tom!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Structural color and pigment in hummingbird feathers

This is the last post on hummingbirds. I promise!
As I’ve been watching our hummers over the past couple of weeks, I’ve wondered what produces that amazing flash of iridescence in their feathers. In school we learned blue birds don’t have blue pigment in their feathers. Instead, they have structural components that reflect and refract light to produce the blue color (structural color), so I assumed it might have something to do with that, but hummingbirds flash iridescent green, blue, yellow and red when the light hits them just right, so what’s up? I found a lot of info explaining the phenomenon from highly scientific studies to overly simple explanations, so opted for the middle road. Iridescence comes from a combination of pigment and structure. In hummingbirds, melanin granules (dark pigment) stack up in the barbules of each feather. The granules are called platelets, and each is filled with microscopic air bubbles that become tiny reflectors. Light reflects and refracts as it passes through these stacks. The color you see is determined by the angle of your eye as you view the feathers. So unlike pigment, structural color can change. That is why the beautiful ruby-red throat or emerald-green back of a hummingbird can look almost black when the sun isn’t striking it or you’re not looking at the feathers at the right angle.

You can tell the sun is not hitting the top of this
hummer's head or maybe the angle isn't right
because here it looks dark, but in other photos of
the same bird, it flashes brilliant yellow. The ends
of the wings however, lack structural color as I've
never seen iridescence shown in them. They
are always dark, indicating a lot of melanin.

I love the flash of green and yellow shown here.
If you look on her back and on the top of her head,
there is no iridescence--either from lack of
light or the wrong angle, so it looks dark.

Flashes of iridescence among the shadows. It
doesn't even look like the same bird in the first photo.

Beak Bit
In addition to color, the pigment melanin has another use in makes them stronger. A clip from Cornell's “All about Birds” Website describes the strengthening characteristics of melanin best:
"Feathers that contain melanin are stronger and more resistant to wear than feathers without melanin. Feathers without any pigmentation are the weakest of all. Many otherwise all white birds have black feathers on their wings or black wingtips. These flight feathers are the ones most subject to wear and tear. The melanin causing the tips to appear black also provides extra strength."
It makes sense the wings and tail feathers
of hummers would be black and have a
lot of melanin. They really get a work out!

Although I read a lot of articles about structural color, I used the "National Geographic Reference Atlas to the Birds of North America," edited by Mel Baughman as my main reference, along with Cornell's "All About Birds".

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Look at the tongue on that hummingbird!

This little hummingbird worked herself into such a tizzy defending her nectar source I couldn't take my eyes off her. Fierce and protective, she eventually settled down on a small branch in the American Hornbeam tree. If you didn't know better, you would think she was sticking her tongue out at the juvenile trying to muscle in on her nectar source. This photo is not high quality, but it's great for teaching. Look at that long, long tongue!

Hummingbird tongues can be as long as or longer than their bills.

Hummingbirds have very unique tongues! To start with, the tip is forked and covered in a fringe that works like a mop to help the hummingbird lap up nectar, but it doesn't stop there...the edges of the hummingbird's tongue curl up to form small, open channels that use capillary action to pull in nectar. At one time, it was thought hummingbirds had straw-like tongues and sucked in nectar just like butterflies or moths do with their proboscis, but now researchers know they flick their tongues in and out up to 13 times a second to lap up nectar.

Update: I just read the article, "How the hummingbird's tongue really works," by Deborah Braconnier, so I thought I'd add it in. According to the research of Associate professor of ecology Margaret A. Rubega and graduate student Alejandro Rico-Guevara from the University of Connecticut, hummingbirds do not use capillary action to take in nectar. Instead, they curl their tongues to trap liquid. It's an unconscious, automatic effort that requires no energy by the bird. Click here for the entire article and a video of the hummingbird's tongue in action.

Because the tongue is so long, it lets the hummingbird
lap up nectar even if it can't reach its bill into the flower.
If you look carefully at this photo, you can see the tongue
curving down into the flower at a 90-degree angle to the bill.

Sometimes hummingbirds sip nectar from the base of
a flower from holes drilled in the blossom by insects. In
this photo you can see the hummingbird looking under
the flower. I don't think she found a hole, though...

Tucked in the dark shadows of the pines about
15 feet from the Lucifer crocosmia, this little female
hummingbird chattered and squeaked and
scolded. Her bill looks so sweet here...

Beak Bit (...literally this time!)
Every time I've watched a hummingbird, I've never seen one open his or her bill up wide. Even while chattering and scolding, the birds always seem to have such tiny little openings, so I wondered how they caught insects. Hummingbirds can not live on nectar alone. They also need protein, and therefore they become predators on the hunt for fruit flies, small spiders, and all sorts of flying insects, but their bills just don't seem suited to nabbing insects in the air like a flycatcher, so I wondered how they did it. All of my books at home talk about the importance of insects in a hummingbird's diet, and one even recommends putting out rotten fruit to attract fruit flies, but they never say how a hummingbird catches the insects, so I did a quick Internet search and found lots of interesting articles. Apparently, a hummingbird's lower mandible is bendy. Here is a clip from "Flexible feeders: the lower bill of the hummingbird makes a nectar-drinking beak into one for catching insects" by Adam Summers in "Natural History," Sept 2004. Click here for a link to the full article.

"To see how hummingbirds catch insects, Yanega and Rubega ran a video camera at 500 frames a second to film individuals of several species in slow motion as they fed on fruit flies. Projected at far slower rates, the movies reveal that a hummingbird catches flies at the base of its bill rather than at the tip. Most surprising, as the bird opens its beak to catch a fly, the lower bill suddenly bends downward at a point near the middle and widens, enlarging the bird's mouth to the detriment of the fly."

As in the previous hummingbird posts, any information I didn't know already, I gleaned from the "National Geographic Reference Atlas to the Birds of North America," edited by Mel Baughman. This is one of my favorite books for little details about bird behavior.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Those amazing hummingbird wings...and shoulders...and flight muscles...

If you've spent any time at all watching hummingbirds, you've no doubt marveled at their amazing maneuverability. Being able to accelerate and stop instantly, hummingbirds are the only birds who can fly up, down, forward, side to side, backward, and even upside down and backward, changing direction in microseconds and stopping on a dime to hover or perch. These tiny birds are fearless, often hovering inches from your face while staring you down! I love it when they do that. I always wonder what they are thinking, assuming they are operating on instinct, assessing the situation, but mostly making sure I'm not going to try to hone in on their nectar sources!

Hummingbirds use a figure-8 motion to fly and hover.
Their wings are set up differently than other birds, being
more like hands. Hummingbirds can not bend their wings
at the elbow and wrist, but they can rotate their wings at
the shoulder 180 degrees, allowing the figure-8 motion.

The average hummingbird's wings beat
about 50 times a second while hovering!

Hummingbirds have huge hearts for their body size.
The large and strong heart muscle is needed to
pump blood and oxygen to flight muscles that
are often 50% larger than other birds.

Beak Bit
A hummingbird's flight muscles (pectoralis majors and supracoracoideus) contain all red muscle fiber and are packed with mitochondria (which I remember from school are the powerhouses of the cell responsible for producing energy from glucose to make ATP). My brother, Bill (the personal trainer), taught me about red and white muscle fibers a long time ago when I started lifting weights with him. Red muscles fibers are used for sustained aerobic activity, while white muscles fibers are used for short bursts of anaerobic activity. It is logical then that hummingbirds would have all red muscle fibers with lots of energy producing mitochondria. Hummingbirds hover for so long to sip nectar, they need muscles that are capable of long-term endurance. The breast muscles of chickens, however, contain mostly white muscle fibers (the light meat). This type of fiber allows the bird to take off explosively to escape predators, but does not allow the bird to fly far. Most birds have a mix of white and red fibers. The hummingbird is the only bird that does not have any white muscle fibers in both sets of flight muscles. Click here for more detailed information on muscle fibers and mitochondria in birds.

This little bird is a formidable beast uniquely adapted
to live on nectar, a high-energy food source needed
to fuel a high metabolic rate and unique
musculature, but more on that later!

In addition to the sources I've sited above in links, I used information from the National Geographic Reference Atlas to the Birds of North America by Mel Baughman. This is one of my favorite books for little details about bird behavior.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Our three little hummingbirds...

...continue to fight over the nectar from the Lucifer Crocosmia. At least it's just these three (maybe a female and two juveniles?). In our yard, all of the adult males have already moved on. Scientists believe male hummingbirds may depart for the wintering grounds first because it leaves more concentrated nectar for the females and juveniles.

Such a pretty little female. You can see the white
tips on her tail feathers indicating she's a female.

No ruby gorget and white tips on the tail feathers--must be
a female--or a juvenile. Females and juveniles look alike.

I love this photo with her crazy-eyed attitude.
"Are you quite through?" she seems to be saying.
I remember as I took this photo how a few feathers on the
top of her head were practically glowing gold. It looked
like someone had dropped gold flakes on her crown.

Beak Bit
In the spring, all Ruby-throated Hummingbirds with white tips on the tail are females, but in summer, you never know. Juvenile male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds look like females. When they return in the spring, they will have their ruby gorgets and will have lost the white-tipped rounded tail feathers, making it easy to identify them.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"A ROUTE of evanescence"

A ROUTE of evanescence
With a revolving wheel;
A resonance of emerald,
A rush of cochineal;
And every blossom on the bush
Adjusts its tumbled head,—
The mail from Tunis, probably,
An easy morning's ride.

Emily Dickinson
from "The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson"

"Evanescence" is such a beautiful word and perfectly describes our little Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Emily Dickinson's sensitivity to nature forever gave us this connection--a perfect match in sound and mood. Fleeting, they do seem to appear out of nowhere and vanish as a vapor when they wish.

...continued from Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Lucifer Crocosmia

Monday, August 10, 2009

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Lucifer Crocosmia (BPW #50)

The evening sun seeped through the leaves of the Cleveland Pear to drop dappled shadows on the stems and flowers now growing at its base. I had just planted four pots of Lucifer Crocosmia and was watching three little Ruby-throated Hummingbirds slowly loosing their senses for its nectar. As the hummingbirds ducked in and out of the cast shadows, the deepened sun lit their feathers to iridescent extremes. I ran in for the camera and began photographing them as they fought viscously over the nectar. I had just brought these fiery red perennials home from the nursery and wondered how long it would take our little residents to find them. It took less than five minutes. They loved its nectar so much they allowed me to stand just feet from the blooms as I photograph them.

Shimmering in direct rays of the evening sun, the
hummers seemed electric. The vibrant crimson and
the shadows in the background added to the drama.

As they sipped the nectar, they didn't care a hoot
that I was shooting only feet from their heads. They
were more worried about fighting each other
to protect their sacred nectar stores!

Slices of evening light hit the feathers just right.
I stood for over 45 minutes as the three fought and
squeaked and squawked at each other. Puffing up to
extremes, they all tried to gain control of these
beautiful flowers with the sweet, sweet nectar!

I took so many photos of the birds in this strange light I probably have enough to last all week!

Note - Lucifer Crocosmia has intense orange-red, tubular-shaped flowers that hang on long and strong stems. Our hummingbirds enjoy perching on the stems while sipping the nectar. Lucifer Crocosmia is only winter hardy in areas where temps don't drop below zero degrees fahrenheit, so it might not work as a perennial in our area--it often dips well below zero in Cincinnati. You can dig up the corm offsets and store them through the winter like a gladiolus.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The sweet little song of a Henslow's Sparrow can stop anyone in their tracks...

Crossing through the grass of the High Meadow, I was trying to follow the erratic path of a Monarch butterfly who apparently was on a mission that did not include stopping at photogenic flowers to sip nectar and be photographed, but instead required a hasty retreat over the closest hill. Feeling just the tiniest bit defeated, I marveled at how quickly he could get from here to there…and how “quickly” I couldn't, but in a flash, a very gentle “tsi-lick” froze me in my tracks and quickened my heart. The song I had heard off in the distance earlier was suddenly very near, and a small brown bird jumped up and dove for cover, skimming over grasses and landing no more than ten feet in front of me. I watched as he nervously twitched and dipped on a Bradford Pear sapling, surveying his territory, vigilant of predators. He almost seemed tame as I stood there, so I did nothing when I felt the first tings of water on my hands and arms. If a gentle rain shower was not going to bother him, it wasn't going to bother me either, and we both stayed put--me looking at him always; he looking at me occasionally. When the drops stopped, his song started back up even heartier than before.

The soft, little song of a Henslow's Sparrow slows you down. It is gentle and sweet…and relaxing. Standing in grass up to my waist as I studied his bill and lovely feather patterns, I could feel all the “bigger” stimuli in the field and in my mind dropping away. Suddenly I could see myriad tiny grasshoppers all around, hopping here and there between blades of grass, food for the Henslow's Sparrows no doubt, and invisible to us most of the time as our minds run at normal speeds.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Orange on orange...

Just a quick little post...deep in the meadow, this sprig of Butterfly Weed was pushing through the grass. Neon orange in a sea of lime green, the colors shout summer! The Great Spangled Fritillary perched on top was taking it all in stride, sipping nectar from the blossoms, unaware of his own beauty.

I learned from my "Wildflowers of Ohio Field Guide" by Stan Tekiela, that Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is in the Milkweed family. It is found in meadows and prairies, and along roadsides blazing in the hot sun. It is a true milkweed, but it does not have milky sap. If broken, the stem and leaves ooze clear sap. "Tuberosa" refers to its large tap root, which makes it very difficult (if not impossible) to transplant. Sowing seeds is better. I just bought a Butterfly Weed plant from the local nursery. It was the last one they had and was flowerless and bedraggled. I hope it can come back. If not. I'm going to sow seeds next year. It is a host plant for Gray Hairstreak and Monarch butterfly caterpillars. Yeah!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

I went out looking for molting Bobolinks, but found a Sedge Wren instead…not a bad tradeoff!

Sunday evening found me at VOA park walking the clipped grass aisle of the high meadow. There was a cool chill in the air more reminiscent of September than the first of August, and as I shivered just a bit, I heard the chatty little song of a Sedge Wren just to the right of the grass path. I also heard two Henslow’s Sparrows in the same area, but I knew they were not popping up any time soon, so I stalked the Sedge Wren instead, narrowing in on him with each repetition of his little song. He would sing, and move…and sing and move, and suddenly, there he was! I fired off a few quick shots, but he had a very annoying habit of diving back down into the grass and perching near the base of the vegetation (bad little Sedgie!).

A very sweet bird, and a bit of a rarity around here.

The grassland habitat at VOA park brings in so
many birds lost to the never ending suburban sprawl.
Thank goodness little pockets of protected land exist
so we can get a glimpse of these cute birds.

This little guy is cute—no other word will do to describe his choppy, spritely little movements. Short bursts of flight always carried him to his next perch, where he would sing, peer here and there, and then dive back down in the grass to hide from the camera.

"Hmm...that stalk over there looks nice. I had
better head over and claim it. Then I'll dive back
into the grass to annoy the camera chick."

Little Sedgie hiding in the grass where he spent
most of his time. A perfect little grassland bird, he
completely melds with his environment.

Beak Bit
We are on the eastern-most range of this little bird. Sedge Wrens are also very nomadic, so they don’t always return to the same nesting grounds; therefore, we don’t always get to see them. So this little fellow is special. They can also be late nesters, so our singing male, may be setting up shop and advertising for a female. I hope so! I’ll keep returning to see if more Sedge Wrens have located in the high meadows at VOA. In the Great Plains, Sedge Wrens nest earlier, breeding in May or June. Jim McCormac, in his book “Birds of Ohio,” offers an explanation for our later-nesting birds, “It’s possible that there is a postbreeding dispersal of western birds to the east, where they nest again when midwestern habitats are more conducive to successful breeding.”