Fine feathers maketh…

The beauty of a bird astonishes us, and we all admire the lone singular discarded feather, but we don’t always look at the conspiracy of feathers as they compose that beauty.  Look at this juvenile American Goldfinch:

Juvenile goldfinch

Or this:


Enjoy this cerulean American Bluejay:


Or the elegant chevron on the nape of the Northern Flicker’s neck:


Admire this bronzed turkey

Wild turkeys

Or, finally, this Yellow-bellied Sapsucker:


Compare their plumage to our hair: in a fine head of human hair, the front, back and sides are much the same, and each individual hair is more or less the same colour from root to tip (aging aside, and provided you have been keeping au courant at the hairdressers). The human color range goes from jet black to pale straw, with diversions into chestnut. But a bird’s plumage is not at all like that. The color palette knows no limits. On a single bird, the head may be one color, the breast another, and then all is different again from the wings to the tail. As a final flourish, each individual feather can be a whole range of different colors, from base to tip, like this one from a bluejay:


Then they are arranged so that the dots in one feather line up with the one next door to form a stripe: how does the woodpecker’s genome DO that??


The texture can change too. So on my head, I have tiny feathery bits at my temples, and long smooth hairs elsewhere, but this turkey feather changes texture half way down:


You really couldn’t make it up. I think I need to talk to my colorist about upping her game.



Wriggly things..

I rather like caterpillars, though you may beg to differ.


I never knew that caterpillars needed to drink water. This Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar  seems to have narcissistic tendencies:


Some species are even hairier:


But others are smooth: this is a Cecropia moth caterpillar (4th instar, if you are interested):


And its tiny blue shoes are rather cute:


Some curl up when they are scared, like these American Lady caterpillars:


I fear that many children today grow up without ever meeting a caterpillar. But I do hope that even so someone has read them Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

PS: I wanted to call this “Jacob and Esau”, as in “Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man” but somehow it didn’t quite work, and I wasn’t sure if people still knew the King James bible. So I relegated it to this postscript.

Broad-winged hawk Part II: The hunt

Two of these hawks have been hunting round my bird feeder and squirrel tree. They swoop on the squirrels, and yesterday one caught either a red squirrel or a chipmunk, or perhaps a vole. I couldn’t see clearly, but it had something in its talons when it took off again from the thicket.

Here is the young predator, waiting and watching:


They are woodland hunters, and this is their typical modus operandi, perching on a low branch concealed in the foliage, preparing to make a short glide down onto their prey.  Here he/she is, caught just after take-off swooping vertically down from the branch for the successful attack.


My camera trap caught glimpses of another attack, this time a squirrel chase:


They eat small mammals , birds and insects. Squirrels are large prey for them, but this one certainly had its eyes on a large meal!

I was somewhat puzzled by the fact that one day there were two of them swooping around, pretty much doing a synchronized aerial ballet thing.  They didn’t seem to be competing , and given that one was a juvenile, I am guessing the other might have been its mother? Or maybe it was a prelude to migration, though I have seen one several times since.

I am lucky to have observed all this because they tend to avoid human dwellings. They only appear when I am alone, never when others are with me.

Broad-winged Hawk Part I: After rain

Early one morning after a stormy night I saw this Broad-winged Hawk, Buteo platypterus, drying its wings, and I thought you might like to see the photos.  (The sun was behind the hawk, so they are rather washed out.)

A good preen:



A little shakeout of the wings:

`broad wimged hawk


And then a stony glare at my obtrusive white truck:

`broad wimged hawkThe final result:

`broad wimged hawk

Next time, the action shots!


PS This is a smallish hawk (maximum body length 17″, wingspan 39″ and weight 20oz) and it has a wide range in the Americas, from Southern Canada down to Brazil.  Some but not all birds migrate, and they often gather for the migration in huge soaring flocks called kettles.




Zombie caterpillars

Nature has some bizarre corners. A couple of years ago, I saw these caterpillars, part of a large group steadily demolishing a small shrub.


[Warning: from here on in, this blog is just plain wrong!! I now know that these are yellow-necked caterpillars, Datania ministra, the white hairs are normal, and this strange U-shaped posture is their defensive posture. There is no zombie fungus involved!. I’m leaving it up as a warning not to believe everything I say! MY, September 2019]

Then this year I saw this group, all together on a branch a few feet off the ground, each one bent into a U-shape, not eating, and not moving, though they were alive (I poked them gently).


I thought they were the same kind and were about to pupate, but I was wrong, on both counts. I hadn’t noticed the tiny white hairs on some of them, and the next day, they looked like this:


In close up, you can clearly see the “hairs” are growing out of their bodies:


This is a fungus which penetrates their bodies, and then absorbs nutrients from their insides, leaving a shell. This next photo is of a different group of caterpillars on the same tree. You can see that the segments  of caterpillar between each pair of legs are getting hollowed out as the fungus does its work:


A thunderstorm destroyed the whole ghoulish tangle, so I will never know what the final stage would have looked like.

By the way, I have failed to identify the fungus or the caterpillar, but the fungus is probably a type of Cordyceps. If anyone knows, let me know.

PS: I did wonder if it was not a fungus but some sort of communal cocoon, but my friendly mushroom expert confirmed the fungal guess. And if it was a cocoon,  it would need to survive a thunderstorm.

Turtle paintings

Out kayaking with three friends, on a glorious sunny day, we saw these painted turtles, Chrysemys picta, living up to their names.


They seem too exotically colored for Maine, but they are widespread, and unmistakeable. The adult females can be up to 10 inches long, though the ones I see are usually 6 or 7 inches.


The skin under the edge of the shell is brilliant red and black, and it goes over the edge, as you can see here:


I had never thought about how a turtle’s shell is attached to its body, but Wikipedia says: “The carapace is the dorsal (back), convex part of the shell structure of a turtle, consisting of the animal’s ossified ribs fused with the dermal bone. The spine and expanded ribs are fused .. to dermal plates beneath the skin to form a hard shell. Exterior to the skin the shell is covered by scutes, which are horny plates made of keratin that protect the shell from scrapes and bruises.”

Here is a close-up of where the skin meets the shell, and the transparent keratin plates:



They have a distinctly prehistoric look:


This one had something stuck on its nose, hence the cross-eyed expression:


They eat aquatic vegetation and small insects, crustaceans, and fish. They hibernate in the mud at the bottom of the pond, and can live up to 55 years in the wild.


The Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, is America’s iconic bird. They are not bald, but white-headed.


In the 1970’s there were only 39 nesting pairs left in Maine, but they are now recovering, and by 2013 there were 634 nesting pairs. A pair breed every year on our lake. I took the photo of one of the adults from a small boat (thanks, Kevin). This year they raised two chicks (now fledged).

Their nest is a messy collection of branches and twigs, high off the ground:


They have powerful feet, and prey mainly on fish, which is why they are more common on the coast.


They also snatch fish from ospreys. Round us, ospreys are rare, but one flew over yesterday:


An adult female bald eagle has a wingspan of up to 7 1/2 feet, or 2.3 meters, and can weigh up to 14 lbs, or 6.3 Kg.  Their vision is astonishing; one comparison suggests that they can see unaided as well as we see with powerful binoculars. The oldest verified eagle in Maine was 32 years and 11 months old!

Seeing their numbers recover is inspiring, but I have mixed emotions: the heron colony on my land has been abandoned, most probably because of the threat to the nests, eggs and young from the circling eagles.

PS: Many countries have chosen eagles as their national symbol, including Albania, Austria, Mexico, Montenegro, Philippines, Poland, Romania and the USA. I think the Mexican Golden Eagle is my personal favorite, partly because of the charming prickly pear cactus it is perching on.




PPS My friend Mary Pearce has explained the story behind the Mexican seal. Apparently the Aztecs, guided by the prophecies of Huitzilopochtli (the god of the sun and war), ended their migration from farther north by building Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), on an island in a lake where an eagle held a snake perched on a flowering nopal (prickly pear) cactus.

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