Starting off..

For some time, friends have been suggesting I start a blog, and I have finally got around to trying. I live in two wild and beautiful places: Western Maine , USA, and the Cotswolds, England.  I also travel to far-flung much wilder places.

I take photos with my trusted Panasonic Lumix, sometimes beautiful photos, more often photos that tell a story.

The blog will be erratic, depending on what catches my eye.

For my first post, from Maine, here are the tree swallows that nested in our old purple martin house and raised four young. They fledged two weeks ago.

Cruising along…
She often fed them without touching down at all
It took a while to ram this down the throat of the largest chick



Wood ducks galore

Of the local ducks that breed here, the most dramatic are the Wood Ducks, Aix sponsa.  They are here from spring to fall, and I have been watching them for the whole breeding season, starting on March 28th, too far away for good photos.

They are very shy, but a pair flew in over my head on May 12th without noticing me, and settled down. The males in breeding plumage are extremely handsome, bedecked in an almost military outfit:

Wood ducks

The females are much more discreet, but the large oval white eye marking helps to distinguish them from any other brownish duck:

Wood ducks

This year they are breeding on my biggest beaver pond.  They nest in holes in dead trees, like this one, which I suspect is where they were breeding this year:

Possible wood duck nest hole

Once they have ducklings, they become easier to photograph, because they cannot fly off when they hear the slightest sound or catch a tiny movement. The next photo was taken on June 18th:

Wood duck and ducklings

On July 2 all six were still there, and beginning to leave her side and venture out alone:

Merganser duckling

Still too small to fly, if startled they ran along the top of the water, desperate to get to the safety of the rushes:

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By late July, I found a solitary female on a tiny secluded beaver pond; either she had raised her brood, or never had one, who knows.

Wood duck

Wood ducks normally have one brood a year, but occasionally they have two. This female had very young ducklings on August 4th, so it could have been her second brood:

And on August 29th I saw what I am fairly sure are two new grownups, one female (left) and one male, distinguished by their white head markings. The male does not yet have the adult’s red eye.

Welcome to the next generation.

I saw my last wood duck this year on October 18th. They are leaving for Florida, very sensible, really.

PS Next time, I will show you how the male’s plumage changes with the seasons.

Mushrooms in and mushrooms out

The familiar ecological roles for mushrooms are as helping trees grow in a symbiotic relationship with their roots, and then living on decaying wood and thereby helping to break it down. But they also have relationships with animals.

They are a food source. A surprising number of mammals love a tasty mushroom, like this woodchuck:

and this chipmunk, who has carefully folded a large one in half to make for easier carrying, complete with a sort of dead leaf sandwich filling.

Squirrels store them for the winter by perching them up in trees to dry, which may be what gave the Italians the inspiration for dried porcini.

But the great cycle of life goes on, and some mushrooms thrive on the by-products of mammals, poop. This is bear poop, and it is entirely covered in a pale blue fungus called Penicillium vulpinum .

Here it is in close-up:

In a rather disconnected leap, inspired by the notion that another by-product of mammals is milk, this slime mold fungus rejoices in the name of Wolf’s Milk, Lycogala epidendrum.

If you puncture a young specimen, out oozes an orange gluey substance, which I suppose must be the source of its name. Since I am fairly sure that actual wolf’s milk is white, it doesn’t explain much. But it certainly has a whiff of Halloween to it, so maybe we should think of werewolves?

PS Thanks to Leigh Hayes for the ID of the blue fungus on the bear poop!

What’s in a name: Calligraphy Beetles, Twice-stabbed Stinkbugs and more

One of the best insect names I know is the Calligraphy Beetle. This one is  Calligrapha confluens, and both the larva and the beetle itself feed only on alder.

Calligraoha conflouens, feeding on alder

I like to imagine  that an ancient Tang dynasty Chinese scholar took brush and ink, and wrote a poem to this beetle on its carapace, in lü shi, or regulated verse.

Here is its patterning from above:

Calligraoha conflouens, feeding on alder

It is not a ladybug (lady bird for you Brits), but in the family Chrysomelidae, or Leaf Beetles.

I found a quite different bug yesterday, which I assumed to be related, but it isn’t. This one is a Twice-stabbed Stinkbug, Cosmopepla linteriana, on a mint leaf. 

It is a nymph, i.e. not yet an adult, and when it is all grown up it will be black and red, with two bloody spots that give it its name:

Like all stinkbugs they produce a smell in self-defence. I have never smelled it, because I cannot bring myself to bully the tiny stink bug.

This is a very smart Spotted Cucumber Beetle, on a rose. And look what is hiding underneath the petal:

This beetle delights in the scientific name of Diabrotica undecimpunctata howardi, which would appear to imply it has 11 spots, but I count 12. Maybe the eponymous Mr Howard couldn’t count? Or I suppose the central two closest to the head are almost merged? Dapper though it is, it is a major agricultural pest of cucurbits and corn.

So now you see how exquisite beetles can be, you can see why the Egyptians carved scarabs in their honor, like these fron the Met’s collection.

PS I have more lovely beetles, which I will save for another time.


It has been a good few days for hawks around here. Soon they will fly south, but not quite yet. This is a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk, grooming itself after rain on top of an old beaver’s lodge in the middle of my wetlands:

I mis-identified it as a red-shouldered hawk, but the moderator at Cornell’s eBird website kindly emailed me the right ID. A week earlier, a pair had been circling overhead, so this is probably their teenager, sulking alone in the middle of the pond.

A couple of days later, I looked out of my bedroom window at 7.15am, and there below me on the granite fencepost was another one, or maybe the same one (as the hawk flies, the pond and the house are only a mile apart):

It was grooming itself, but I only got one blurry action shot. Still, you can see its white fluffy leg feathers and long tail.

Soimetimes they are called chicken hawks, and I suspect that is because of their call:

Cooper’s Hawks are medium-sized hawks. Males (smaller than females) are 14-18in long, including the tail. At one point a turkey (bottom right) walked past, but it was far bigger than the hawk (top left), so they just ignored each other:

I was rather hoping that the name of the hawk had some obscure connection to wooden barrels and casks, but no, it is named after a Mr Cooper. Maybe his ancestors made casks?

Cooper’s Hawks were in trouble in the mid-20th century, probably because of DDT, but the population seems to have recovered and is now stable. They eat birds (often hunting round bird-feeders), and small mammals like chipmunks, which we have (had?) in abundance in our garden. They breed here, and may over-winter, though some fly south. This nest, high up in a pine, is typical, and could be theirs, but I am not sure:

I’ve also seen two American Kestrels, and a Northern Harrier, a Merlin, and three Bald Eagles, not bad for one week. None of the photos are worth showing you!

Eastern Tigers

This dramatic Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly was everywhere early this summer, to my delight. On honeysuckle:

swallowtail on honeysuckel

or milkweed:

Eastern Swallowtail

In a previous incarnation, it was a large green caterpillar, with fake “eye” markings to deceive predators; the actual head is the reddish section to the extreme left:

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

When threatened, it coils in its front end to create a very convincing – looking face, and those flaps even make its feet look big.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail 

They curl up a leaf with silk threads, creating a little woven silken pad to which they can anchor themselves to rest. I watched this one for days, and it never moved (unless I touched it gently), and then one morning  it was gone, leaving its bed behind:

Had it gone off to pupate, or had something swooped down and eaten it?? We will never know.

Turkey tussle


Early one morning, a tent that we had pitched in the back yard was lurching drunkenly from side to side. The cause: two young male turkeys, locked together in combat. They appeared to be stuck in an intimate embrace, each one eating the other’s beak:

Turkeys fighting

They took turns in being the dominant one, the winner forcing the loser’s head right back as if at any moment a cervical vertebra would dislocate.

The overall impression was of a strange unfamiliar beast with two eyes, one above the other, two necks and two bodies. The locking mechanism was pretty similar to this Bollywood screen kiss, each actor mouthing the other’s lip:

Clearly, though, these turkeys were not in love, but at war. At first I thought they were unable to extricate themselves, but eventually I realized that was wrong. Like a pair of Siamese twins they skidded around the grass, bumping into the tent and nearby chairs, all in total silence. (The two videos below do not seem to be playing reliably, so I apologize if you have trouble.)

They kept it up for about ten minutes, then separated, and returned to feeding, apparently none the worse for wear. My reading suggests this behavior is quite common in mating season, but this was mid-June, some time after mating season was over, so I suspect they were young birds, sparring.

Those wrestlers on TV might be able to learn a trick or two.


This post would make suitable source material for a sci-fi movie or a Stephen King novel. Those of you with weak stomachs look away.

Some wasps lead a rather unsavory lifestyle.

Feeding your young is always a challenge, which these parasitic wasps solve by paralyzing a caterpillar, and laying their eggs in its living body.  The larvae feed on the still living victim, then build these silken cocoons within which they pupate, to eventually emerge as wasps.


When it is time to emerge, they cut around the top of the cocoon with elegant precision, creating a tiny lid. It reminds me of Hercule Poirot preparing to eat his boiled egg.


When I tried to ID this specific wasp, BugGuide initially said “Unidentified parasitic Apocrita”, which seems a rather appropriate name for an insect which ends the life of its host apocryphally. But my wonderful friendly expert Brandon Woo said it was in the family Braconidae, and then Charley Eiseman updated the BugGuide ID, confirming this, and telling me it was in the sub-family Microgastrinae, more specifically in the genus Microplitis.  The internet is a wonderful thing, generous experts at your fingertips.

Moose quest

5.30am, early morning, in Kokadjo, near Moosehead Lake in Northern Maine, 60 miles from the Canadian border:

A phoebe in the early morning mist:

We canoed across the lake towards an elegant hummock:

and then into an ever-narrowing bay-let:

One moose in the far distance, , that slowly turned and strolled away. So we stopped for breakfast, attracting a Gray Jay (aka Canada Jay), well-known hangers on at campsites:

And then just as we were leaving, the guide pointed out a mother and calf ahead. The calf scarpered (and neither of us even saw it), but the mother lingered:

We have moose where we live in south-western Maine; you see droppings, but the population is small, and I have only ever seen 4 or 5, in nearly 40 years. All told, we saw five moose that morning, all cows, and the one calf. Thankyou Mark Patterson.

Look but don’t touch: The thuggish, sluggish caterpillar

The Spiny Oak Slug, Euclea delphinii, is not a slug at all, but a flamboyantly decorated caterpillar, looking scared of its own shadow:


Can you see that it is wide and flat, not cylindrical like most caterpillars? Rows of yellow or orange stinging spines line the caterpillar from head to rear, with longer pairs at the head and the tail.  They have sharp black tips, shown in close-up below.

euclea delphinii,  spiny oak slug.

These venomous spines deter predators, and touching them is a mistake! They can be extremely painful. If you get a spine embedded in your skin, try to remove it with Scotchtape, and then use baking soda. Some people may even have an allergic reaction that needs medical attention. (Information from insectidentification.org)

My caterpillar was stationary, but slug caterpillars are so-called because they move rather like slugs. They lack any functional prolegs. Instead, they have suckers, and produce a sort of liquid silk lubricant,  so they move by undulating across the smooth leaf surface.   The Caterpillar Lab has a great video of one in motion:


And a final pose:

Yip John A Segur West





Got the blues

Western Maine is a low key, laid back sort of place, not flashy or full of itself. But these three birds seem to have escaped from exotic lands, flaunting their azure plumage in our Northern forests.

My first is (I think) an Eastern Bluebird, because he had a rusty belly when he flew up into a tree:

Eastern Bluebird

I do concede however, that I could be wrong: maybe he too is …. ..the same as my next bird.

My second is a male Indigo Bunting, Passerina cyanea, singing from the treetops on June 9th. This is completely typical: they sing from the highest point they can find, all summer.


There is a recoding and rather a good description of their song and how they learn it here:


I am so pleased someone named it the Indigo Bunting instead of the Blue Bunting: how often do you get to use the word indigo, unless you are reciting the colors of the rainbow, or are into natural dyes. And its Latin name is cyanea, after another great color word, cyan! When they are just fledged, the blue just peaks through their beige feathers, but this week this teenager was on the same tree that his father liked, two months ago, so I can  be confident of its identity.

Juvenile indigo bunting

My third is the American Bluejay, Cyanocitta cristata, noisy, arrogant, and a year-round resident up here.


He has a fine crest, not raised in this photo.

One last blue vision: a wild native Blue Flag Iris, Iris versicolor. There was a big clump in the swampy area at the edge of my beaver pond on June 10th, and although they are purplish blue, I consider them as qualifying for this post by virtue of their name:

Blue flag iris, I. versicolor

Look close, and  marvel:

Blue flag iris, I. versicolor

For me, these birds and flowers are a cure for the blues.