Keeping Watch - A Dragon on my Finger?
Henry County — 5/22/2012
I have a flying dragon sitting on my finger as I type, make that a dragonfly unless you happen to be a mosquito. On my tour of the wetlands this afternoon I saw him entangled in the filamentatious algae - that is the moss that looks like green hair and sometimes creates a mat over the entire surface of a waterbody. The Bullfrog sitting near by was most likely thinking about how tastey this guy would be for supper. His wings were spead out, waterlogged and matted on the moss. As I carefully lifted him I noticed his legs were tied up in a ball of moss. I slowly worked the moss off his legs and perched him on my finger. I expected he would shortly either die or fly but that was an hour ago and he is still perching on my left index finger.
I attempted to look him up on the internet and I was able to determine the genus to which he belongs.
Whoa!He just took off and then landed on the stapler but then tumbled over on his back.I picked him up and took him out on the deck. He surveyed the scene, caught the breeze and vanished into the blue.
He was a Male Common Whitetail. see http://www.cirrusimage.com/dragonfly_common_whitetail.htm and scroll down to the bottom of the page to see the male.
These guys are both beautiful and common. Dragonflies offer significant mosquito control in the wetlands. This becomes especially evident if a small isolated puddle appears along the edge of the main water body. In a matter of days it will be teeming with mosquito wigglers. All that is required to remedy the problem is to fill it with soil or connect it to the main water body creating a channel for predatory diving beetles and dragonfly larvae. A water sample collected from the wetland proper will rarely contain mosquito larvae but one collected from an isolated puddle may hold a hundred. It is nice to know we have bats and swallows along with adult dragonflies ready to control the mosquitos that manage to become air borne.
This morning I saw a Tree Swallow with her head sticking out of the nest box Joy put up for them and last night I watched the acrobatics of a bug hunting bat. Birding in the shade of the forest this afternoon I soon learned that the mosquito eaters are not likely to starve.
Walking along the edge of the forest I saw the female first and thought to myself - Oh no, not another olive yellow bird! It seems the world of warbler juvies and females is full of them. This bird was bigger than your average warbler though. As I approached her attempting to get a better look she flew into the forest. Having no binoculars I figured it was just another lost opportunity to make a positive ID. It would have been had she not joined the male who was a brilliant red bird with bold black wings. There was no mistaking that guy. I was looking at a pair of Scarlet Tanagers.
Now the question is, are they migrants just passing through or might they consider settling down to raise a family?
A new brood of Woodies showed up on the hilltop wetlands today. Seven Night Hawks passed over this evening. Viewing the eclipse from the river bottom left something to be desired. It would have been a good time to be sitting on the west side of the New London windmill ridge.
Joy and I went to the annual Iowa Ornithologist Union meeting this AM up at Iowa City. We went especially for the opportunity to go birding for warblers with Chris Edwards at Lake McBride.
Chris walked the park at Oakland Mills one spring day after some migrating warblers were "brought down" by stormy weather. He saw more warblers there in an hour than I have seen in my life. Today I learned why. As we stepped out of the truck Chris was already on the ground pointing to warblers in the trees, not by sight, but by sound. Many of their voices were outside the left over range of my hearing. Another birder had recordings she shared with us to let us know what we were missing. Chris's ears lead his eyes and prepared his mind to readily identify the birds by sight.
Chris reminded me of Pete Crane who was my birding mentor in my youth but who unfortunately died before he really got my attention. It goes with picking slow learners.
I came away from biriding with Chris realizing how much I lost by not wearing hearing protection when operating power equipment over the years.
I invited Chris to visit Henry County again sometime to walk our parks with me and help me see what I am missing. Joy and I identified 53 species of birds at Tick Ridge one spring and I will not be surprised if Chris can add several more.
The Redstarts were the stars of the day in the forests of Lake McBride. I had never seen one to know one before today and today I probably saw a dozen. Beautiful little warbers, these guys. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Redstart/id
I would be the watchman but how shall I when I cannot hear the voices of warblers? Still, I am thankful for this, I could hear the geese calling in the distance.
We watched two Bald Eagles walking around in several inches of water in the grassy shallows watching over the carp that were making a ruckus as they invaded the flooding vegatation due to water level control measures. White Pelicans circled overhead.
A pair of Wood Ducks shared a wetland complete with a nest box. They might be thinking about a second clutch.
And yes, I too could hear the song of the White Eyed Vireo! http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/White-eyed_Vireo/sounds
A lone Sora Rail and 1 Solitary Sandpiper were walking the shorelines of the Hill Top Wetland this morning.
Just as it was getting dark yesterday evening I went to the wetlands to monitor water levels and adjust flows. Walking along a levee between two wetland cells I saw a female Painted Turtle perched over the nest she had dug into the earth. I carefully marked her location in the fluttering files of my short term memory so that I could return to the spot with a cage and some earth staples to protect the eggs. When I got back she was just finishing up so I found a good vantage point 20 yards away and sat down to wait for her to cover the nest and head for the wetland. It was nearly dark before she was satisfied she had done her best. I could barely see her but the shaking weeds marked the path of her return to the water.
The raccoons seem to know when it is nesting time for the turtles and they start digging at any suspicious distrubance in the soil around the wetlands searching for the delicacy. The coons usually find the nests before I do. If I find it first protecting it from coons with a pinned down cage is easier than protecting it from voles (meadow mice) whose tunnels create a ubiquitous shallow maze a couple of inches beneath the surface.
Earlier I also came upon a good sized female snapping turtle who was out and about likely looking for a good place to lay some eggs. The timing of turtle egg laying appears to be unaffected by the early spring. I will show and tell the snapper with some students this week and then help her find a place to lay her eggs down along the river. I transport the snappers off the hill top as the opportunity arises since they find baby Wood Ducks to be a delicacy.
The picture is the Central Newt that I photographed and returned to the hilltop wetlands on 5/11.(see below)
Today I visited one of my favorite Cliff Swallow colonies. Hundreds of birds created a vortex for our viewing enjoyment. The number of visible nests was far less than the number of visible birds. Some were juvies but I wonder if some where just roosting and resting while still being on their way further north.
Winfield Avenue Borrow Pit: 8 Canada Geese, 3 Great Blue Herons, 6 Greater Scaup (1male).
Joy Lake: 5 Coots, 2 Common Yellow Throats
Hill Top Wetlands: 2 Night Hawks and 1 Common Yellow Throat one brood of Mallards (per Moms behavior.)
Home: 5 Cedar Waxwings
New London Borrow Pit: Woody hen with brood.
And a flood of regulars.
As a kid I remember Night Hawks chasing bugs under the street lights up town before dawn. Such early outing were either to deliver papers or to get fresh rolls at Wings Bakery following a sleep out on the neighbors front porch.
The flat roofs up town were covered with pea-gravel back in those days offering ideal nesting locations for the birds. I can remember a pair nesting of the roof of the Sheaffer Pen Building over on Lincoln Street. See: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Nighthawk/id Click on Sound or Typical Voice to hear the distinct call.
The birds are wide spead but I do not see them nearly as often as I used to.
While gathering tadpoles to share with 4th graders today I scooped up a Central Newt. This guy is living in one of the prototype tertiary wetlands that I built to put the final polish on some of the discharge water from the Mt. Pleasant Wastewater Treatment Plant. I shared my find with the 4th Grade Classes, took his picture and quickly returned him, no worse for the wear, to his home. I then notified
http://www.herpnet.net/Iowa-Herpetology/ of the find and provided them with the Google Map location.
Tonight, thinking of the Newt, I topped off 4 wetland cells. I have one slender shaded wetland tucked-in under the shade of Red Elms along the edge of the forest. From what I have read it should be the hot spot for the Newts but I have never seen one there. Go figure.
On the way to turn on the water I enjoyed watching Mom and her brood of woodies hurrying into the cover of the cattails and watching the nesting pair of Trumpeter Swans set up an ambush for me should I stray too close. I also enjoyed the chorus of the Cricket Frogs. The Cricket frogs pretty well wrap up the spring sing that starts with Spring Peepers and Chorus Frogs, moves on to American Toads and Tree Frogs and then closes with the Cricket Frogs.
It looks like the ladies hung around from 5/3 to meet the fellas.
Winfield Avenue Borrow Pit: 14 Greater Scaup (4 males)
Joy Lake: 1 Male Greater Scaup.
5/6/2012 A Goose Named Amos
I spent a busy day babysitting - Wood Ducks and a Canada Gosling this morning and then grand-daughter Keira this afternoon.
For nearly 20 years we have been raising and releasing waterfowl. We have coupled this activity with the environmental education programs that we present to public and private schools in Mt. Pleasant and Fairfield. In the past we have also presented programs in Louisa and Van Buren Counties but we are cutting back in retirement.
The Canada Gosling I am taking care of now is one that was too weak to hatch. He got a whole punched through the shell and then just gave up. When Mom got off the nest I picked up the egg and asked if anybody was at home. Sure enough, in the irresistible trilling language of a baby gosling I received the message that Amos was still alive.
So I then began to carefully pick at the shell to expand the opening while paying close attention to the membrane inside of the shell and serves as the lung during incubation. Too much help too soon and serious bleeding may result. The membrane was brown, not pink, indicating there was not likely to be any hemorrhaging associated with removing the shell and too that the egg yolk was most likely fully absorbed. It was time for Amos to get some assistance if he was going to gain entry into the world. He was just too weak to get the job done. I am a sucker in such situations and I was wondering even as I picked away at the shell if I should I just let nature take her course. You know, the ole survival of the fittest thing.
As I worked him carefully out of the egg I noticed that he also seemed to lack muscle tone. By the time he was dry in the incubator we noticed he had crumpled feet and spraddled legs. The next day he could not stand up and he looked like he was trying to do the breast stroke when he attempted to walk with his legs sticking out to either side. Joy got some stiff silver tape and I spread one foot and then the other out flat on the tape and pressed them onto the adhesive to spread his feet. Joy then trimmed around each foot to fit the stick on shoes. She then got some vet wrap and we created of a ribbon of that self-adhesive material to hold his legs spaced appropriately underneath him. He floundered around with this arrangement a bit but we felt it was essential to avoid permanent crippling.
We noticed then how quickly he tired and how his head would shake and bob from side to side. As we put him to bed we did not think his chances for survival looked good at all.
The next morning things started shaping up. Joy was surprised to find him sitting up like a normal goose. His head was steadier and his improved condition convinced us to release the leg brace and place him in a flower pot lined with flannel that kept his feet under him but not restrained. As he worked to get out of the pot his legs and his strength improved dramatically.
\By the next day, Amos had a name and a future and a story and a message to take to school.
5/5/2012 Canoeing Big Creek
Three generations of Wilsons canoed Big Creek in two canoes and one kayak this evening. We were short on time and thus we took the quick trip from the County Quarry to the Kinney Quarry. The time on the creek was less than one hour. The creek was at 4.8 feet according to the USGS gauging station and all five of us agreed it was a perfect trip as far as weather and water depth were concerned. We were enjoying each other's company way too much to maximize bird watching but still observed 2 Barred Owls, a small flock of Bank Swallows a couple of Wood Ducks and a Belted Kingfisher. We once again pondered the remains of the old Mt. Pleasant waterworks dam and wondered what the water quality of the creek was like back in the days it supplied the city of Mt. Pleasant.
We noticed that some of the mosses on the rocks along the foot of the bluffs had taken a hit during the last year. We were left to wonder if it was during times of not enough or too much water or some blend of both.
The beauty of this stretch of the creek never fails to inspire us. See the USGS Graph @
This is the 4th time this spring with "ideal" flow conditions
Walmart: Canada Geese families and a pair of Blue-winged Teal and 20+ American Toads
Winfield Ave. Borrow Pit: 1 Great Blue Heron, the resident Canadas and 10 female Greater Scaup. Why all females? What ever the reason it gave me an opportunity to study the females closely. In a mixed flock of Scaup I have always focused on the males seeking to determine if the group was Greater or Lesser Scaup. With only the dull females to look at it became clear to me that it is easier to differentiate the species by looking at the females. At least at this time of year as the white patch behind the bill really stands out. Maybe it always does on mature females. I will pay closer attention.
Joy Lake: There continues to be a few Coots and Grebes.
Richard Garrels: Chatting with Rich this morning at the courthouse he reported seeing a small flock of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks on his property some time back. I was excited to recieve this belated report as I have only seen these ducks in captivity. Anyone who has had the honor of visiting Richards conservation area can appreciate why the ducks picked that location to catch their breath. I checked the Iowa Ornithologist Union Henry County Checklist and it was amazing to me that they were listed as having been spotted in Henry County. These ducks generally occur in southern Arizona and Texas and then south into Mexico.
Richard is another one of those notable private landowners who is making a difference in county conservation and is reaping the rewards of rare visitations.
Tonight I saw the First Tree Frog of the season to come down out of the trees and take up residence on the garage door to hunt flying insects by the light of the silvery bulb. If he sticks around he will likely be a participant in the 4th Grade Outdoor Days.
As I mentioned earlier I cannot hear Pee Wees ( forest birds) any more and so I suppose the fact that the Spring Peeper I heard tonight does not sound like any Spring Peeper I have ever heard before probably does not indicate a new species but rather the evolution of my "selective" hearing.
I saw a Sora Rail, Blue-winged Teal and Canada Geese in the cattails at the hilltop tertiary treatment wetland and Yellow Warblers in the fence line down in the river bottom. At least three Ruby Throated Humming Birds (one female) are busy at the feeders now. The American Toads, Chorus, Spring Peepers and the Tree Frogs are singing in full force. Apparently they have been waiting for the subsoil moisture to be replentished (rain) before laying their eggs. Kingfishers and Little Green Herons are daily visitors now. The Honey Bees are swarming this week. Joy saw two broods of Wood Ducks on the pond.
Walmart missed the Black-necked Stilts, they were spotted in Iowa City but the wetland scores another life time first for me with 7 Long-billed Dowitchers. In addition there were 2 Blue-winged Teal, 3 Mallards, 2 Coots, Canada families and 1 Gadwall.
I headed next for the New London borrow pit and bingo 6 more Long-billed Dowitchers and one Black-bellied Plover - another life time first for me. In additions there were 4 Yellow-legs, 2 Solitary Sandpipers, a pair of Shovelers, a pair of Wood Ducks, 2 pair of Blue-winged Teal, 1 Great Blue Heron (a fly by) and 1 Killdeer (that liked chasing its cousin the Plover). There was some considerable confusion on the identification of some small sandpipers that I am attempting to work out tonight. I went to New London and asked Ron Osborne if he would be willing to verify the Plover and Dowitcher sightings. No problem!
Rome had 4 Lesser Yellowlegs, 2 Solitary Sandpipers, 1 Blue-winged Teal and 1 Great Blue Heron.
Joy Lake had 4 Coots, 4 Canada Geese, 4 Mallard Drakes and 5 Pie-billed Grebes.
The Long-billed Dowitchers and the Black-bellied Plover have both been added as new additions to the Iowa Ornithologist Henry County Check List. The Checklist now has 235 species listed for Henry County. For pictures see:
The plover at New London was a well marked mature male with black cheeks and white cape.
The second Dowitcher picture is particularly good.
4/29- PM Showers and 48F
"What's that? Look, sitting on that branch sticking out over the pond." With that Joy handed me the binoculars. It was a sandpiper sitting in a tree. The bold black and white bars on the sides of its tail finally narrowed our search to the Solitary Sandpiper. As it turns out these guys not only perch in trees but also nest in the abandoned nests of song birds in the northern forests of Canada.
Joy noted a brightly colored Male Ruby Throated Humming Bird back at the feeder and "really tanking up" at 5:15 pm. Blue-winged Teal conspicuously abscent on the pond this afternoon.
4/29 -AM Cool, cloudy, sprinkles. 47F
A Harris's and a White Crowned sparrow met me at the end of the drive way this morning. A Kingfisher flew over the Iowa Avenue bridge as we crossed over Big Creek.
The pair of Red-Breasted Mergansers were still on Joy Lake this morning along with 5 Pie-billed Grebes, 4 Coots, 2 Canada Geese and 1 female Ruddy Duck sporting unusually light flanks. She spent most of her time under the water and well off in the distance. This made identification a challenge with binoculars so we had to get out the spotting scope. Yep, no question then, it was a white-flanked Ruddy Duck. The variations in the coloration of birds add to fun of making positive identifications. Now and then a hybrid will show up and really make things interesting. Crosses between domestic geese and Canadas show up every year.
A Turkey Vulture and a Crow were working road kill in the middle of the left lane on the 34 West by pass. After watching several close calls with traffic I decided to pull the remains of the coyote off onto the shoulder.
Swallows: What's in a name? When it comes to Swallows five species are named for their favorite nest sites. Bank, Cliff, Barn, Cave and Tree. Anything You can do to give swallows a hand helps to control mosquitos and other flying insects. It is particularly fun to watch swallows playing with feathers over the water - taking them up, releasing them and then circling back to catch them in mid-air and repeat the process.
Active swallow nests are protected by law, but more importantly by far they enjoy our good will and plain ole good sense. Tree Swallows like Joy's Bluebird boxes and she is happy to include them as another targeted species.
4/28 - PM
Skunk River : The Cliff Swallows are back. These are the guys that build those neat mud pot nests. They prefer to build under ledges on shear surfaces. Unlike the barn swallows that build open mud cups the cliff swallows leave only a small hole for an entrance. They often nest in colonies and we saw a nice flock of them flying over the Skunk River.
Joy Lake: We saw a pair of Tree Swallows eyeing our nest boxes, a pair of Red Breasted Mergansers taking a break, 3 Pie-billed Grebes, 2 pair of Gadwalls and one pair of Canada Geese.
We got to watch the pair geese come in from the west. They approached in a long slow gluide on slightly cupped wings into a steady breeze, not flapping even once. While still well above the surface they dropped and spread their webbed black feet dragging them back under their tails to serve, as do the flaps on an airplane, to reduce air speed and add lift. Then just above the surface, they brought their wide spread feet forward, rocked their toes up and breaking hard against the air set up for touch down on the water fully prepared to ski to a stop on their multi-functional landing gear. At the last moment, just as they were coming to a complete stop, they folded their wings and settled gracefully into the waves.
Perhaps they too were impressed with their landing or maybe just with each other, as they spent a couple of minutes discussing something that was obviously of mutual importance to them while using those amazing feet as paddles now.
Old Rome Sand Pit: There were two Great Blue Herons and 1 little Green Heron in the Old Rome sand pit neighborhood.
4/28 AM The cool rainy weather is no doubt curtailing the nectar flow of the Black Locust and the Honeysuckle flowers this morning. If yesterday's Hummer has not moved on he may well be back at the feeder today. The Canada Geese on the hilltop wetlands have hatched while the Trumpeter Swans have just started setting on their clutch eggs. I find it strange that the geese seem to do a better job of defending their nests from the egg snatchers then the swans do. It may have something to do with raccoons being able to stay low and thus to remain under the strike zone of the powerful wings of the swans. Or maybe the geese just pick better nest locations. What ever the case, it will be fun to watch and see how things turn out this year. Swans usually hatch around the first of June and they are on target to do so this year. The warm weather in March does not seem to have had a significant effect on their nesting dates.
I watched Green Fire again last night. The film mentions Aldo Leopold's heart break over the drainage of one of the marshes in the Mississippi flood plain near Burlington that he had so enjoyed hunting in his youth. I too have watched the drainage of beloved wetlands. There was a time when I came to hate "bulldozers" but now I have come own one. They work just as well to create wetlands as to drain them. Our tools do not of necessity spoil the natural beauty of the world, they can in fact enhance it. It all depends on our values. Or, in the words of Leopold, on a functional Land Ethic. In Iowa, it depends on private landowners.
Recent Iowa erosion maps show several Henry County townships continue to loose soil at rates several times higher than that of natural regeneration. Bulldozers building terraces on hillsides along with the establishment of stream side buffers and waterways well up in the drainage systems continue to reduce the rate of erosion but we still have a long way to go. Wetlands are hard to beat when it comes to erosion and flood control, water quality enhancement and wildlife habitat.
4/27 Joy say our first of the season Ruby Throated Hummingbird at the feeder this morning. I observed a pair of Red-Breasted Mergansers along with several mallards and a few coots on Joy Lake. While I was there a mature Bald Eagle approached the lake flying into a stiff head wind coming out of the east. As the eagle moved out over the water the head wind allowed him to hover motionlessly maybe 200 feet over the water. The waterfowl obviously considered him to be setting up for a dive and immediately took to the air.
4/25/ Partly Cloudy, 68F @ Noon- We saw our first of the season male Rosebreasted Grosbeak on the finch feeder this morning. We have a pair of Cardinals nesting among in the blackberry briars that trail through the blueberry bushes. Third family of Canada Geese started hatching yesterday.
Green Fire - 4/25- Oakland Mills Nature Center
Joy and I went to the Nature Center last night at Oakland Mills to watch the presentation of the movie Green Fire. It is a film documenting the life and legacy of conservationist Aldo Leopold in his quest to foster a Land Ethic. Regrettably we had to leave in the middle of the movie to go home and shut up critters for the night.
Fortunately a few days ago DP told me she had a copy of the movie she has shared with her college classes and that I was welcome to borrow it. So, as soon as I got in the house last night I called her to request the opportunity. I will make a special trip to town today to pick it up.
“Our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides, but they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history, to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”
Aldo spent his life looking for a functional land ethic, and still we look, and in so doing we preserve our hope for both sustainability and spiritual growth.
Blessed and a blessing are those who find joy in the land.
If You haven't already, take time to visit the Nature Center and start watching for The Return of the Hummers at a feeder near You.