Archive for insects

The Panama Hawk Migration


Panama City from atop the Canopy Tower.  It reminded me of the Emerald City of Oz.

We traveled to Panama in early October mainly for the hawk migration, but there were many other fascinating sights such as the Three-toed Tree Sloths munching on the Cecropia leaves outside our window.


We stayed at Canopy Tower an old converted US Military radar installation.  The food was excellent with menus prepared by the owner’s Mother (?) who was a well known chef.  We came back from one day’s outing to find the remnants of that cuisine being sampled by seven juvenile Coatis.  They didn’t mind in the least if we watched them and they were relatively respectful of each other, unlike their cousins the Raccoons..


It was a thoroughly enjoyable trip bird-wise as well with my eBird total of 195 species.  There were beautiful insects with Blue Morpho butterflies fluttering everywhere.  I also encountered a creature completely new to me, a Helicopter Damselfly (Megaloprepus caerulatus).  It was lovely at rest but absolutely mesmerizing in flight, twirling delicately down the path (click on the name for a link to a short video)


Here is the Helicopter Damselfly at rest.  It is huge, about 7″ long and with a similar wingspan.  (Photo courtesy of Christine Howe, all rights reserved)

But of course the hawk migration was the primary reason for our visit.  We drove to Ancon Hill where the official Panama hawk watch is held.  We were told that almost no hawks had come through on the previous day but they had heard from Veracruz, Mexico that they should expect large influx were due this day.  We saw very few at first but then they started rising from the canopy and flying in from the west.  They gathered and rose swirling (kettling) until they reached the top of the thermal and then slid off to the east.  We were told that in one half-hour period we had seen approximately 18,000 hawks, mostly Swainson’s Hawks and that every Swainson’s Hawk in North America passes over the Panama Canal on its way to its wintering grounds in Argentina.  I found the experience very calming, watching them floating in, up and on their way, hundreds at a time.


There are a few Turkey Vultures  and Broadwings but most of these birds are Swainson’s Hawks, a tiny fraction of the spectacle.

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A Visit to Possum Long Banding Station

A juvenile Little Blue Heron, seen at Possom Long Center.

A juvenile Little Blue Heron, seen at Possom Long Center.

We have visited this banding station in Stuart, Florida twice now.  While the banding has been slow, it has been great to meet kindred spirits and chat birds, birding, bird habitats, plants to attract birds…well, you get it.  The small sanctuary is about five acres, about the same size as our Birdcraft in Connecticut.  The banders are also working at other sites in the area banding Painted Buntings in concert with a program in the Carolinas, in an attempt to learn more about the decline of the Eastern population of this lovely bird (a popular cage bird in Europe!)  They have installed an Osprey nesting platform and Mr. & Mrs. Osprey were hard at work mating and chasing off intruders.

What a splendid view they must have from this beautiful platform.

What a splendid view they must have from this beautiful platform.

Possum Long was a local high school science teacher and he donated the property to the Martin County Audubon Society on his death.  While I didn’t see any life birds there, I did get a life spider, a Golden Silk Spider or Florida Banana Spider.  This impressive creature is beneficial and harmless, unlike the South American ones that come into the US on bunches of bananas, which have a venomous bite.  Females can have up to a five inch leg span and are the largest North American spider species after Tarantulas.   This one was about four inches wide, larger than my palm.

Golden Silk or Florida Banana Spider.

Golden Silk or Florida Banana Spider.

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Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Connecticut

Fork-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus savana)

Fork-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus savana) not showing his spectacular forked tail well in my picture.

Those in the know about Connecticut sightings will say, “This is old news,” but I had wanted to post about our South American visitor and didn’t get to it over the busyness of the holidays.  The first notice that Connecticut had a Fork-tailed Flycatcher came on November 30th.  It had been seen at the ferry landing in Hadlyme and the next morning I was on the road (icy from an overnight freezing rain) and on my way up to see it.  When I pulled into the parking lot, several friends were already there and the bird was flitting from tree to tree.   We all got great looks at the bird as it ate berries and searched for insects.  I had seen this species once previously at Cove Island Sanctuary in Stamford on November 18, 2010.  This bird is noted for wandering to the East Coast of the United States.  I believe this is the fourth time one has been sighted here in Connecticut.

Why do birds wander so far away from their familiar territories?  Are the ones we are seeing “scouts” coming north to explore our area in hopes of extending their natural range?  Are their brain cortexes defective with regard to directions?  Are they just overshoots (going too far in their migrations)?  I’ve heard some theories but no one seems to know for sure.



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Non-chemical Strategies to Prevent Insect Damage on Eggplant and Zucchini

My eggplant leaves are a little crumpled from pressing up against the row cover, but there is no sign of the flea beetle damge that usually weakens them so much in the spring.  The cover needs to be removed when they flower, for pollination.

My eggplant leaves are a little crumpled from pressing up against the row cover, but there is very little sign of the flea beetle damage that usually weakens them so much in the spring. The cover needs to be removed when they flower, for pollination.

Last summer I experimented with using row covers to combat flea beetle on my eggplants and squash vine borer on my zucchini (see this post).  The eggplant experiment worked well but the zucchini on found that the row covers were ineffective.  This summer, I used the row covers for the eggplants again with the same excellent results and have tried something new with the zucchini.  While perusing the seed catalogs, I came across a zucchini that was self-pollinating (no insects required) and decided to try it, even though it was not organic seed.  I planted the seeds under a large row cover and am now getting zucchini.  They seem to get very woody if they are allowed to get large, but I like to pick them small, so it hasn’t been a problem.  I’ll update this at the end of the season.

Here's my tented zucchini.  It looks a little weird, but if I get good zukes all summer, it's worth it.

Here’s my tented zucchini. It looks a little weird, but if I get good zukes all summer, it’s worth it.

This is the self pollinating zucchini at about 6" long.  I will keeping it under cover to try and combat the squash vine borer.

This is the self pollinating zucchini at about 6″ long. I will keeping it under cover to try to combat the squash vine borer.

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Monarch Butterfly Migration

Migrating Monarch Butterfly on a Northern Blazing Star plant (Kennebunk Plains, ME)

Migrating Monarch Butterfly on a Northern Blazing Star plant (Liatris scariosa on Kennebunk Plains, ME, which has 80% of the world’s population of this plant).

We had come to Maine for a day or two last week and I was treated to a front row seat on the Monarch Butterfly migration.   I was sitting watching the Northern Gannets through my scope as they performed their spectacular plunge dives into the ocean.  As I watched bird after bird crash into the sea, I became aware of Monarch Butterflies floating by, three or four a minute.  While most butterflies winter over in hibernation, Monarchs have evolved to migrate, more like birds than insects.  The excellent website Journey North has interactive maps to track the Monarch migration, and a check of the map showed me that the peak in Maine was occurring right in front of me.  The Maine birding list serve made note of this in a post from the edge of the Piscataqua River, relating how 500 or more of the butterflies had gathered at a spot on the shore of the river, waiting for more favorable winds before continuing.

These Monarchs I am seeing are thought to be the final generation of the year in the north and will travel as far as Mexico, overwinter there and travel halfway back next spring.  The migrating monarchs are different from the ones we see all summer as they have not reached sexual maturity.  This will happen next spring as they begin the trip north again.  It may take as many as five generations of Monarchs to reach maturity over the next summer before the migration begins again in the fall.  There are many, many unanswered questions about this amazing phenomenon.  The record flight for a Monarch in one day is 265 miles, an almost unbelievable fact.

When we were in Bangor, Maine, just three weeks ago, I had seen many migrating Monarchs and had photographed what was likely to be the last instar (larval stage) of the final generation there on milkweed, its favored host plant.  [Sorry about the photo quality]  Perhaps one of these individuals floating by me was the one I photographed.  The timing would be just about right.

Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar on its favorite plant, Milkweed.

Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar on its favorite plant, Milkweed.

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A Close Look at a Common Whitetail Dragonfly

Female Common Whitetail Dragonfly

Female Common Whitetail Dragonfly

My husband found a dead female Common Whitetail dragonfly and brought it inside so we could share close looks.   As the name suggests, this dragonfly is readily seen at this time of year throughout much of the country, but it was fascinating to have a chance to examine this strikingly beautiful insect at such close range.   Common Whitetails (Plathemis lydia) are also called Long-tailed Skimmers, the name “Whitetail” derived from the appearance of the male, which has an eye-catching white tail in maturity.  They are members of the order Odonata which also encompasses Damselflies.  They have excellent eyesight, eating mosquitos and other small insects, usually hawking from perches near a body of water.  The males are territorial, defending territories of 30 to 50 foot stretches of shoreline.

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Mt. Washington Above The Treeline: A Few Plants

Mt. Washington Sandwort

White Mountain Sandwort (Arenaria groenlandica)

One final delight from our Mount Washington trip was the alpine plant life.  Alpine plants are defined loosely as those that grow between the treeline and the permanent snow line.  These tough little plants have evolved to withstand low temperatures, desiccating winds, poor soils and high UV exposure.  Some are simply miniaturized forms of plants from the gentler climes below while others are unique alpine specialists, growing only above the treeline.  While stumbling over the loose granite scree fields, I was amazed to see these tiny plants flourishing in seemingly inhospitable places.  The Sandwort (photo above) is a native of Greenland, stranded on mountaintops when the glaciers receded, where it forms tiny nosegays to delight hikers.

Three-toothed Cinquefoil

Three-toothed Cinquefoil (Sibbaldiopsis tridentata)

The Three-toothed Cinquefoil is another Greenland species isolated on mountaintops by the retreating glaciers.  It was thought to be a member of the Potentilla family but recent study has reclassified it as a member of the Rose family.

Cutler's Alpine Goldenrod (Solidago cutleri)

Cutler’s Alpine Goldenrod (Solidago cutleri)

Alpine goldenrod is another plant isolated on mountaintops.  It has been cultivated for rock gardens but on Mount Washington it serves as a nectaring source for the endemic White Mountain Fritillary, another souvenir of the ice sheets.  This butterfly is found only in the alpine zone of the Presidential Range, chiefly on Mount Washington.  The final two plants I want to share are miniature forms of plants familiar to me from the Maine woods, an exquisite tiny Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis, a creeping form of Dogwood) and a diminutive Meadowsweet, (Spirea latifoliaa).  The Meadowsweet  was being visited by Hoverflies, a fly that looked  and acted like a bee.

Alpine Meadowsweet (Spirea latifolia)

Alpine Meadowsweet (Spirea latifolia)


Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis)


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Yellowjacket Adventure

Aerial Yellowjacket Nest After Being Burned

Aerial Yellowjacket Nest After Being Burned

My husband had been clearing a few stubby maples away from a wild Nannyberry bush I wanted to encourage when he disturbed a wasp’s nest and was stung, only once, thank goodness.  He located the melon-sized nest in a low fir tree only a couple of feet off the ground. The sting made his hand swell immediately but an application of cortisone ointment and Tecnu (which contains the Native American herbal remedy of Great Valley Gumweed, Grindelia robusta) ameliorated the pain and swelling.   I identified the wasp as an Aerial Yellowjacket  (Dolichovespula arenaria) which can be beneficial as it feeds on aphids and similar garden pests but this nest is in a location where we walk by and the Yellowjackets are aggressive and can sting multiple times.  Some people are allergic to the venom.  [As a result of the comment from Larry Flynn below, I want to make it clear that Yellowjackets are wasps, entirely different from bees.  Bees are in deep trouble due to colony collapse disorder and are crucial to our planet as pollinators.]

I thought little more about it until my husband woke me at 4:30 a.m. to declare he was going out to burn out the nest.  He had obviously been brooding about this and had a plan of action.  The nest was too low to use a wasp spray and the job needed to be done in the dark.  I wanted him to first alert the fire department and put the hospital emergency room on call but he ignored this advice.  He went down to the nest, fully covered and gloved, armed with a gasoline soaked torch, fire extinguisher in hand.  He returned with the burned out nest.  He had put the lit torch directly under the hole and the nest lit up inside, killing the adults.  Some of the larvae were still wriggling in the morning and he killed them by crushing the remainder of the nest.  I question whether this was necessary but at least the area is safe for grandchildren and potential guests to walk by.

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