Turkey stroll

I haven’t seen much of the wild turkeys this year — it must not be a good year for acorns in my backyard.  But two young males checked out the weed patch in my neighbor’s yard the other day, and found it far more interesting than my wildflower garden.

turkey toms

Perhaps they are finding some good insects among the tall weeds. I dislike the way the weeds come through the fence between our yards, but am happy the weed patch brings in the wildlife.

turkey tom-old

The elder Tom (long beard hanging down his front) of the pair shows no interest in the bugs in the wildflower garden — perhaps he is not fond of bees.

turkey tom-young

The younger Tom (short beard) shows equal disdain for a different patch of wildflowers.  I wonder if this guy was hatched just this year, or if he is a year old.

turkey toms

Meeting up on the other side of the backyard, the two Toms decide to move on, to better foraging grounds.

Male and female turkeys flock up in the fall, like many other bird species, but are segregated by sex, and to some extent by age.  Young males (non-breeding jakes) will often hang out together all fall and winter, while a hen and her brood, or even multiple hens and broods form a flock of their own during fall and winter.  Adult (breeding) males also form flocks outside of the breeding season, rarely including the young Toms — kind of like an “old boys’ club”.

Thank the bees — again

I missed the national day of recognition for Honeybees (Aug 16).  A “wordl” poster created by the New York Bee Sanctuary does a fantastic job of illustrating how much we have to thank the bees for maintaining our food supplies.

honeybee poster-NY Bee Sanctuary-wordl

Wordls are picture representations of the vocabulary associated with a particular subject. The size of the text is proportional to the importance of the subject for that word. Wordls are easy to create for any article, website, or random group of words using Tagxedo.com

honeybee on salvia

Honeybees pollinate dozens of crop species in addition to a multitude of flowers.   Some, like this red salvia seem designed especially for honeybees — in fact, it’s a bit of a tight squeeze to crawl into the corolla of the flower and down to the nectar source.

honeybee on salvia

A tight fit, but worth it. Always nice to have an exclusive food source.

Wikipedia has an impressive list of crop species dependent on bee pollination, so thank the bees by planting more nectar-rich bee wildflowers in your garden.  You can read more about this here.

The woodpecker and the weevil

It’s unusual to see Downy Woodpeckers foraging on herbaceous plants in the middle of a prairie landscape, even if the flower stalks do reach 5-6 feet tall.  But the mature seed pods of Common Mullein may harbor a feast of insect larvae that Downy Woodpeckers have learned to harvest.

downy woodpecker on Common mullein

This Downy female spent quite a long time exploring every bit of all the Common Mullein flower stalks on a small patch of prairie. She worked around the bottom half of the flower stalks, then flew to the next stalk to start another search.

Common Mullein is a fuzzy-leaved biennial weed, introduced from Europe.  During its first year of growth, it produces a large rosette of furry leaves, followed by one to several tall spikes of small yellow flowers the following year.

downy woodpecker on mullein

Only a few small, yellow flowers open each day (and they last just one day), but the woodpecker isn’t interested in insects on the flowers.

Mullein is famous for its seed production — putting out as many as 175,000 seeds per plant.  But the woodpecker isn’t interested in eating the Mullein seed either.  But that much seed in one place becomes highly attractive to insects, like Mullein Weevils, whose larvae specialize in devouring mullein seeds.

downy woodpecker on common mullein

Each of the knobby seed capsules that surround the flower stalk harbors as many as 500-600 seeds. A weevil larva develops inside one seed capsule where it consumes 100% of the developing seeds, and finally pupates there. 

The lower and middle thirds of the Mullein flower stalk seem to suffer the heaviest infestation of weevil larvae, with the top being relatively weevil free.  In all, weevils destroy/consume about 50% of the mullein seeds, which still leaves a lot of seed production from just one plant (~80,000!).  But without this semi-effective control of mullein seed production, that species would be a lot more invasive.

Then as seeds are maturing, along come Downy Woodpeckers who probe the seed capsules for larvae and pupae, thus keeping the weevil population in check. A nice system of biological control at a couple of different levels.

the impressionist garden

I found a new way of appreciating the beauty of the varied wildflowers in the backyard garden in a different way — using a “drag” technique to blur the image and create impressionist-like blotches and streaks of color.

wildflower garden

The original:  purple coneflowers, gray-headed (yellow coneflowers), obedient plant, scarlet beebalm, red cardinal flower, oxeye and cup plant flowers highlight a scene in the garden. (I need a wall-size poster of this to look at this winter.)

drag technique on wildflowers

Using a slow shutter speed (<1/10 sec) and panning the camera in an up-down motion while the shutter is open creates an impressionist blur of color.

drag technique on a wildflower garden

I edited (cloned out) the offending pole in the background and softened the edges of the streaks of color (using Blur) in Photoshop.

And then I discovered some artistic tools I had never used or known about in Photoshop and tried them as well.  From biology to art — it’s so easy!  You can mimic the dry brush, spatter, sponge, daub and many other artistic techniques, or you can create abstract whorls of color for a more surrealist look.

wildflower garden by applying "ocean ripple" in Photoshop

This is the “ocean ripple” effect from the selection of Artistic tools in Photoshop.

Photoshop distort-warp technique

This is too extreme for my taste, but it’s fun to play around with the tools in Photoshop, and realize what you can do with it.

You can read more about how to set up the camera for a “drag” shot here.  And see other examples of bloggers who have used this technique here.

Of freckle-faced redheads and black squirrels

Don’t think they have much in common? Read on.

Like the highly variable hair color of humans, gray squirrels come in a variety of colors from all white fur with dark eyes (leucistic gray squirrel)…

leucistic gray squirrel

More about this guy in a previous post: “A white shade of tail

to normal gray fur with various brown-red highlights…

gray squirrel with red highlights basking on a tree trunk

Some gray squirrels have more red highlights than others — including all red tails like a red squirrel (different species)

to an all black-furred gray squirrel, like the one I saw trying to get on my bird feeder yesterday.

black-colored gray squirrel

Not only was he black, he was very big for a gray squirrel.

Fur color depends on the genetic expression of two color pigments that bind to the same receptor in the melanocytes (pigment cells) in the skin.  Pulses of expression of the red-brown pigment (called pheomelanin) mixed with the expression of a black-brown pigment (called eumelanin) as the hair grows and elongates produce the “agouti” or grizzled coloration of a single hair we recognize in the gray fur of the squirrel and many other animals (e.g., coyote or wolf).

agouti fur

However, if production of just one pigment is stimulated while the other is inhibited, coat color may be dominantly black, black-brown, red, or in the absence of both pigments — white.  Fur color can vary over the animal’s body as well, depending on local expression of color pigments.  For example, a bay-colored horse typically has red-brown hair on its body, neck and head, with dark brown legs, mane, and tail.

bay horse-wikipedia

Bay horse: Wikipedia

The same rules of genetic expression apply to human hair color — with the red hair variant produced by pheomelanin expression alone in the absence of eumelanin expression.  The gene for this condition is somewhat rare, occurring in only about 1/4 of the human population, but it is a recessive trait so you need both parents to be carriers of the gene for the “pheomelanin only” expression to show in the child. That’s a 1 in 64 chance, or about 1.5% of the population with true red hair.

princess merida of "Brave"

Princess Merida — an exceptional huntswoman.  From  Disney Wikia.

Now what’s really interesting about red-haired humans is that the genetic difference that produces their unique hair color is associated with higher pain tolerance and greater sensitivity to analgesics (e.g., morphine).  So think about that the next time you see an oddly colored animal and wonder what special powers they might possess.

black-colored gray squirrel

Another Ninja Squirrel focusing on raiding the bird feeder…

From the blind…

The hummingbirds have been quite active lately in the wildflower garden, so I set up the blind this morning to see if I could capture some of the action.

a blind for wildlife photography

I don’t normally keep so much of the window space open — just enough to poke my telephoto through the open space toward the garden.  The blind is about 10-20 feet from the plants the hummers prefer.

There seem to be four hummingbirds buzzing around the cardinal flowers and the nectar feeder — one very shy but aggressive male, and three female-looking birds that could be a female and her two juvenile offspring.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird on cardinal flower

Lots of bees in this photo as well as the hummer probing the red cardinal flower

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Every now and then, one would perch on the tomato cages in the vegetable garden, about 10 feet away.

My goal was to get some photos of the very shy (or wary) male Ruby-throated Hummingbird who dashes in to drink from the nectar feeder, but rarely goes to the flowers.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird male

He seems bigger than the others and has a darker throat, so he is easy to spot, but very difficult to photograph.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird male

He even hides behind the nectar feeder, giving an obstructed view of his ruby throat.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird male

At last, one quick shot of him next to (instead of in back of) the Cardinal Flowers.  Those wings beat 53 times a second while they hover, so cranking up the shutter speed is required.

The hummingbirds are probably feeding voraciously now, stockpiling calories to store as fat for their long migratory journey south to wintering areas in Mexico and Central America.  Apparently a particular hummingbird follows the same route each year, but they don’t migrate in a flock, nor do young hummers necessarily follow their parents.  They just know the way south.

Bees, birds, and butterflies

The wildflower garden was really “humming” with activity this morning. Perfect weather combined with maximum bloom of the wildflowers has drawn a variety of wildlife in.

wildflower garden

The scene on a mid-August (feels like fall) morning.  You can’t see them in this photo, but there are dozens of bees, mostly bumblebees, working the flowers.

tiger swallowtail butterfly on obedient plant

At least two and possibly three Tiger Swallowtail butterflies roam the various flowers looking for the best nectar supplies.  This one seemed to enjoy the Obedient plant nectar.

ruby throated hummingbird on cardinal flower

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are back, just as the Cardinal flower has reached maximum bloom. They actually seem to prefer the flower nectar over the sugar water in the HB feeder.

goldfinch-male-and-female-pair on cup plant

And of course, the Goldfinches are everywhere, picking off the seeds from all the flowerheads.


They don’t like the Black-eyed Susan as much as the Cup Plant (above), but any composite flower will do for these guys.

Bald-faced hornet nest

As I was riding down the street this afternoon on my bike, I spotted a huge nest attached to a limb of a tree and stopped to take some photos.

bald-faced hornet nest

This Bald-faced Hornet nest was definitely larger than a football, about 15 inches long and 10 inches wide.

Bald-faced Hornets, sometimes called Blackjackets (probably because they are closely related to Yellow Jackets) or White-faced Wasp, or Black and White Wasp, are large-bodied for wasps and notable for their huge “paper-mache” nest constructions.

bald faced hornets emerging from nest

Workers were coming and going from the entrance hole at the bottom on the shaded side of the nest.  The striations made by continual additions of chewed fiber look like ripples of sand on a beach.

bald-faced hornet adding to nest

A few workers were adding to the super-structure outside, laying down more papery layers.

bald-faced hornet adding to nest

Workers chew up wood, mix it with saliva and then add the pasty mixture to the structure using their mandibles and legs. This wasp was spreading new material from left to right, and you can see the slightly moist layer she has added to the left of her head.

bald-faced hornet queen collecting wood fiber

A Bald-faced Hornet queen collecting wood fiber to begin construction of her paper nest.  From BugGuide

Fertilized queens overwinter from the previous fall, emerge in the spring ready to begin nest construction and lay a set of eggs that they will tend, feeding the larvae nectar and bits of insects.  These workers will then take over the nest construction and larval rearing duties, as the queen lays more and more eggs to fill the nest with tiers of egg chambers.

bald-faced hornet nest interior

A cut-away of a bald-faced hornet nest shows the layers of paper fiber covering the central core of tiers of egg/larval chambers.  From Wikimedia Commons.

At summer’s end, the nest has reached maximum size, and the queen lays eggs that will mature into new queens and drones, which fly away from the nest to mate, and the cycle begins anew.  Those fertilized queens will overwinter in a torpid metabolic state, while the existing colony of worker hornets will die when the temperatures drop below freezing.

bald faced hornets emerging from nest

I kept thinking of the saying “don’t stir up a hornet’s nest” as I watched these wasps come and go from their nest. They get aggressive and angry when agitated or disturbed, and are capable of delivering multiple stings to the target offender.

Gigantic black horse fly

An unwelcome guest at any family picnic…

female black horse fly

A gigantic black horse fly, with scissor-like mouth parts ready to slice into tender skin.  About 1.5 inches in length, and a solid black color everywhere, this is a fearsome beast.  A space between the wrap-around eyes means this is a female — the sex that bites and draws blood from man and beast.

female black horse fly mouth parts

Within the vertically oriented sheath of mouthparts below the eyes are scissor blades that slice and shred their way into the skin of tough cow or horse hide with ease.  A sponge-like structure on the end of the proboscis then mops up the blood that pools on the skin.  

Female horse and deer flies require a blood meal to obtain sufficient protein to complete egg development. Males lack the cutting mouthparts and feed only on nectar and pollen.  These biting flies are serious pests of livestock, not only because of their annoying buzzing near sensitive spots on the face, but because they take such large quantities of their hosts’ blood (30 flies can suck up 1/3 pint of blood in less than 6 hours).

Following their blood feast, female Black horse flies deposit their eggs on or near aquatic vegetation where the larvae will develop over the next couple of years, feeding voraciously on aquatic insects or snails.

female black horse fly

A fly to reckon with…

Brand new and beautiful

Swallowtail butterflies seem to be doing well in the upper midwest this year.  Newly emerged butterflies, with their brightly colored scales still intact, show up every couple of weeks in the backyard garden.

male black swallowtail butterfly on coneflowers

A male Black Swallowtail butterfly probed for nectar in the coneflowers.  Males have two bright yellow rows of spots on their wings, with little blue showing in the hindwing.  Females lack the upper row of spots, and have much more blue in their hind wings (see a recent post for illustration of male-female differences)

female eastern tiger swallowtail

A female eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly, easily recognized by the bright blue scales at the edges of her hind wings.

Populations seem to be rebounding after two summers of low numbers.  Tiger Swallowtails and Monarch butterflies are two of the most common species seen in the backyard garden this year — which I am glad to see.