Mr. Not-so-beautiful

This is the time of year we see beautiful and dramatic color changes in the vegetation, but that is just one of many fall transformations.  Gaudy male ducks that shed those brilliant colors right after donating their sperm to the next generation last spring and became pale, cryptic versions of their previous selves have recently begun the transformation back to splendid technicolor.  It’s like a before and after makeover for Mallard Ducks at the local reservoir this week.

molting mallard ducks

In the summer, male Mallards look just like their females, with mottled brown plumage that blends in nicely with the dappled shade in which they spend the day.  The male of this pair (in the back) is just beginning to acquire the lustrous green feathers that will eventually cover his entire head.

Most ducks undergo two feather molts during the course of one year:  one in the spring/summer after breeding in which they replace all of their feathers, including flight feathers (resulting in the basic/female-type plumage); and one in the fall/winter in which they replace just the body feathers to regain the colors of the breeding (nuptial) plumage.

mallard plumage sequence-illustration by Patterson Clark

Mallard plumage sequence-illustration by Patterson Clark (Washington Post, Aug. 30, 2011).

This process of feather replacement ensures that birds acquire a new set of flight feathers before making short or long-distance migrations in fall or spring. More importantly, it ensures that gaudy male ducks, who would be conspicuous targets for aerial predators (like Bald Eagles) can protect themselves with better camouflage while they are flightless and molting a completely new set of wing feathers.

molting mallard ducks-

He’s sort of an ugly duckling at this stage of feather replacement, hence Mr. Not-so-beautiful…

Fueling this feather replacement not only demands additional energy intake per day, but a higher quality of protein in the diet, and so ducks will start feeding on more invertebrates and less pond scum, as they drop old feathers and grow in new ones.  It has been estimated that ducks need to ingest about 100 grams of protein to replace the 60+ grams of body feathers during a whole body feather molt.  That means they need to ingest more than 3 grams of protein per day over the 30 day molting period, and that translates to about 31,000 invertebrates eaten over the month!!!, according to the folks at Ducks Unlimited.

mallard-drakes-

Soon, the local ponds and lakes will have congregations of brightly colored males swimming around the few females (lower right corner) in attendance.

mallard-males-displaying-

And as spring rolls around again next year, the brightly colored male Mallards will begin to play “who’s the prettiest” again.

losing their spots

Signs of fall are beginning to appear as a few maple trees show some red and gold color in their leaves, the squirrels are busy collecting nuts off the trees, Canada Geese fly in V-formation overhead, and a few of the wildlife start growing their winter coats.  I first noticed the latter when the fawns suddenly appeared in the backyard without their spots.

White=tailed fawns-fall molt-

Just a trace of spots linger on the flanks of one of the twin fawns that have ravaged my wildflower garden all summer long.

White-tailed fawn - winter molt

The tawny brown coat with white spots is slowly being overgrown by the longer gray brown winter fur, which provides the deer with much needed insulation to survive the cold.

White-tailed fawns - winter molt

Not all of the fawns have started growing their winter coat, though.  It’s interesting that in these twins, one is clearly well ahead of the other in development of the winter fur — which lends further proof to the observation that twin fawns are usually fraternal, not identical.

What this tells me is that there have been at least two sets of twin fawns that have been eating up the backyard garden — and I thought it was just one hungry pair that had been doing all the damage.

butterfly “bushes”

Late summer flowers are attracting an abundance of bees and butterflies to residential gardens now, but by far the most attractive flowers seem to be those of the succulent Stonecrop (Sedum species) and Violet butterfly bush (Buddleya species).  Late summer generations of American Painted Lady are passing through the area in great numbers, probably on their way south to warmer winter climates.

american painted lady-

A Painted Lady delicately inserts its proboscis into each open flower on a gigantic blooming head of Stonecrop.  They are easily recognized by the owl eyes on the underside of their hindwings and orange and white splotches of color on the topside of their forewings.  Newly emerged butterflies are brightly colored with entire margins of their wings intact. 

american painted lady-

Apparently they like the nectar of Zinnia flowers as well.

But it’s the butterfly bush (Buddleya species) that is the most popular with the butterflies.  The large Eastern Tiger Swallowtails have a size advantage and might try to monopolize a flower spike,

eastern tiger swallowtail-

This female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail looks a little beaten up with frayed hind wings. The eggs she will lay or has already laid will develop through the caterpillar stage and into pupae that overwinter as a chrysalis. These butterflies don’t migrate.

but the fast-darting American Painted Ladies just skip around and beneath them to feed.  You can tell this is a butterfly flower from the flatenned floral disk with a thin, elongate flower tube that likely has a nectar reward at its base.

eastern tiger swallowtail-feeding on butterfly bush (Buddleya species)

The swallowtail has inserted its proboscis deep into one of the flowers (I colored light blue) of the flower spike.  Long, thin floral tubes like this would exclude almost all of the bees and flies and are probably much too narrow for hummingbirds to utilize.  Thus — an exclusive butterfly resource.

silver spotted skipper-

A Silver-spotted Skipper tried to feed on the butterfly bush along with the other butterfly species, but seemed to be excluded or chased off. So, it settled for whatever the Hosta flowers had to offer.

a different look

This is the time of year we begin to see birds migrating back to their southerly winter homes, but many of them look very different than they did when they arrived here in the spring ready to breed.  Most birds have two outfits in their wardrobe:  a non-breeding basic plumage that may be drab but serviceable for all-around activities, like migration and over-wintering; and a brightly colored (in the case of males) alternate plumage that is meant just to show off their stuff in the breeding season.  In some cases, bills, skin around the eyes, feet, etc. may also be brightly colored, only during the breeding season.

Here’s a look at how this works in a small diving “duck” (not really a duck) called the Pied-billed Grebe, whose basic, non-breeding plumage gives no trace of the pied bill.

pied-billed grebe-basic, non-breeding plumage

Pied-billed Grebes were diving among the lily pads looking for small fish or crayfish lurking there.

pied-billed grebe-basic, non-breeding plumage

No trace of that characteristic marker of the broad black stripe on the bill though.  The one at the bottom of the image still has the faint head stripes of juvenile plumage.

pied-billed grebe juvenile

Typical juvenile plumage in the Pied-billed Grebe

pied-billed-grebe-breeding adult

A few months earlier adults looked like this, with a more definite black stripe through the pale, silver bill.

Pied-billed_Grebe_and young-Audubon

Earlier in the breeding season, both adults and youngsters looked quite a bit different than they will during the non-breeding season. Photo from Audubon field guide.

Of course seasonal changes in the grebes are far more subtle than those in some of the warbler species that take on completely different colors and color combinations between basic and alternate (breeding) plumages.  For example, gorgeous red Scarlet Tanagers molt to a green-gold plumage in the non-breeding season, making them look like a completely different species.

scarlet tanager plumage molts

good morning, little blue bird

Indigo Bunting

His tail looks a little worse for wear, but he has maintained the deep blue color of his body feathers throughout the summer.

I was barely out of my car at the Old Cedar Road parking lot when a beautiful Indigo Bunting hopped up on a tree nearby, posing briefly in the bright sunlight before flitting off into the forest.  What a nice treat for the first bird of the morning.

Indigo Bunting

In fact, he is a surprisingly uniform blue.

In the next few weeks, this colorful male will molt into its winter plumage and become drab brown, like the female, before migrating to its winter home in Central America. Indigo Buntings, like most other bird species, replace their feathers twice a year, but these brightly colored males take at least two years to become completely blue.

the not-so-secretive Sora

Soras are a type of marsh bird that I rarely see because they are usually tucked away deep in the vegetation, obscured by tall stems and leafy plumes.  But this morning, a couple of Soras ventured out into the open water on the edges of the Mississippi marshes to forage, seemingly oblivious of the much larger ducks and geese around them.

Sora

Soras are a type of rail related to coots, moorhens, and gallinules.  They have a distinctive triangular shape, yellow bill, black mask, red eyes, yellow green legs with long toes, and usually carry their short tail feathers straight up in the air.

Sora

Mottled, rich brown feathers on their back help them blend into the edge of the marsh where they forage and nest.

Soras typically grab insects or seeds from the top of the water, occasionally probe into soft mud, walking quickly through the water and vegetation.  The adventurous Soras I watched this morning walked right up to and around resting ducks, paying no attention to their greater bulk, as they searched for hidden food items.

Sora and molting Wood Duck

The molting male Wood Duck seemed wary of the Sora though.

Sora and molting Wood Duck

Sora

Sora, just passing through…ducks don’t care

Sora

Long toes, with webbing between them, help Soras cruise through muddy muck of the marsh.

During the breeding season, we often hear the high-pitched descending notes of the Sora’s whinny call, but rarely seen them.  They are busy producing a lot of little Soras in a nest that might hold as many as 18 eggs, stacked in rows on top of each other.  Since the Soras start incubating before all the eggs have been laid, they hatch asynchronously, and the first youngsters to hatch jump out of the nest join one of the parents while the other parent continues to incubate.

Rumble.com produced an excellent video of Sora and Virginia Rails in their native habitat:

green on green

Hiding in plain sight by matching the color of your skin to the color of the background is useful for predators stalking their prey or prey trying to escape predation.  It’s also useful in confusing photographers about where to aim their cameras.  Case in point: I saw the bushes moving, wondered if it was a bird, thought it might be a chipmunk, but stared right at the little critter for a full minute before I figured out what it was.

gray tree frog-

A gray tree frog in green phase hiding in plain sight.  It wasn’t this obvious without the zoom on the camera to help pinpoint its location.

gray tree frog-

It’s scientific name gives a hint to its ability to change colors: Hyla versicolor. Usually it appears mostly gray with green splotches.

Many species of fish, amphibians, and reptiles have the ability to change color and outward appearance by contracting or expanding the chromatophore (pigment-containing) cells in their skin.  This chameleon-like ability can assist them in better regulating their body temperature, or as suggested, in achieving the kind of camouflage that helps them evade their predators or fool their prey. It is thought that the animals’ eyes perceive the color spectrum of their environment and send neural signals to skin chromatophores to effect the appropriate color changes.

In cases where there doesn’t seem to be a clear message about the color of the background, Gray Treefrogs are often mottled gray and green, or just remain gray, as illustrated below.

gray-tree-frog-

Hmm… water in a bird bath? Not sure what color to be.

gray-tree-frog-

Gray treefrog sitting on the side of a dish pan, next to green vegetation — again, it’s confusing about what color to be.

gray-tree-frog-

Gray treefrog sitting on an orange dahlia — no possibility of a match here.

gray-tree-frog-green-phase

Green-colored Gray treefrog on the ledge of a wooden door? Clearly a bad match.

morning at the marsh

It’s amazing how much you can see early in the morning before the cyclists and hikers have hit the trails around the local marsh.  And it always amazes me to find such a diversity of wildlife inhabiting a small wild oasis in the urban landscape! I’m sure if I had spent more time on this hot, humid morning, I would have seen even more.

floating island-

Dense mats of cattails float around the marsh propelled by the prevailing water flow.  They attract a wide variety of wildlife that may hunt from their edges, nest in their stalks, and hide within small crevices from the peeping eyes of photographers.

great blue heron-

Great Blue Herons are often found along the shoreline, usually obscured by the vegetation.

great blue heron-

Another heron was making its way down toward the shoreline — perhaps the mate of the other one?

great egret-

I can always count on seeing a Great Egret or two foraging near the edge of the marsh.

green heron-

What else is hiding here in this vegetation near the shore? A Green Heron pops up to see if I’m a dangerous predator.

green heron-

A less nervous juvenile Green Heron hunted in the shallows.

common loon-

Out in the water, a Common Loon swam by.

double crested cormorant-

Nearby, a double-crested Cormorant surfaced from its dive, and took a look around.

I spotted something white way out in the middle of the marsh, swimming quickly away from me, and grabbed a quick shot of a Trumpeter Swan family with their two, seemingly newly hatched, cygnets.

trumpeter swan family-

It’s a bit late to find these newly hatched chicks; perhaps the first nesting failed and these are result of a second nesting attempt. The chicks have a lot of growing to do before they reach the body size of the adults which can weigh more than 20 lb.

trumpeter swan family-

Double trouble

The deer really like my backyard:  they eat my plants, they bed down in the wildflower garden leaving big depressions in the vegetation, they rest right under the bird feeder, and believe it or not, the half-grown fawns chase the foxes right out of the yard.  But I enjoy watching them parade through, so I just keep replanting the garden.

white-tailed fawns-

Make yourself comfortable…

white-tailed fawn-

By all means, help yourself to the garden perennials. This shrub rose may not recover, but oh well…

white-tailed fawns-

Yes, please do eat the buckthorn. I didn’t want that to spread in the backyard.

And where do these two learn where the best places to forage are?

white-tailed doe

From mom and dad, of course.

white-tailed buck-

This one has developed a taste for hostas.

6th bloggiversary

Six years, almost 1200 posts, lots of photos, and it seems that each year about this time, I write something about the same critter — the dreaded Japanese beetle.

japanese-beetle-on-coneflower

Japanese Beetles make their appearance every year in the backyard (and in the front yard as well) in late June, and eat their way through my plants and flowers for the next 6 weeks.

Once again, they have made swiss cheese out of my raspberry plants, sometimes even mating and/or feeding on the fruit as well.

japanese beetle-damage

They’re pretty as insects go, but I hate seeing them on my fruit-producing plants.

But this year, thousands of beetles descended on my Honeycrisp apple trees, and have decimated more than 50% of the leaves.  Ugh!  It’s easy enough to pick them off the raspberries or spray the plants with soapy water, but apple tree leaves are out of reach. Instead of spraying the trees with some bee-killing insecticide, we used a bacteriocidal solution, combined with an oil spray.  End result — it didn’t work.

Thanks to the drenching the raspberries received from a few thunderstorms this summer, there were plenty of extra leaves for the beetles to consume, and I still got a nice crop of raspberries from the plants for my annual jam-making.  But the fate of the apple crop is yet to be determined.

raspberries-