Scrubby thickets are often unsightly, but they are wonderful hiding places for birds.  In the interests of honesty I decided to only use photos of the birds in situ in the thicket behind my flower garden. Here are six denizens of my untamed underbrush, some more visible than others.

When the female Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris,  is not hovering next to a flower, it retreats to the cover of bushes:


The Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) is a flycatcher, in the family Tyrannidae. She nests every year above our back door, but once the young are raised she hangs out in the lower branches of trees, and in the thicket.


The Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis tracheas,  is in the warbler family. It nests on the ground, but this male was singing noisily in the scrub:

Common Yellowthroat


Two young Black-capped Chickadees were preening after rain:


A female Purple Finch, Carpodacus purpureus,  is feeding on the berries:

Female purple finchDSC03646

The Northern Flicker, Colaptes auratus,  is unusual for a woodpecker in often feeding on the ground. But it too finds the thickets useful cover: the yellow undertail is all you can see!

Northern Flicker

The main reason all these birds rely on dense brush for concealment is this:

Immature broadwinged hawk

The immature Broadwinged hawk, Buteo platypterus,  is perched on a small tree a few yards away, watching closely.

My thicket is a messy mix of lilac, chokecherry, wild grape vines, gnarled crabapples, and brambles, and I have been tempted to landscape it out of existence, but then where would the birds go for refuge? Songbirds like forest edges and thickets for a variety of reasons, cover being only one of them. Some species nest there, some feed on the berries,  some use them as launch pads for insect hunts or nectar flights. One way or another, they are very important habitat, and deserve our guardianship.

PPS Today I cleared a few low-hanging branches from the thicket where they were smothering my phlox, and the Gods took their revenge: I got stung by a hornet right next to my eye.

Following the fruit

It’s raining today, and anyway I thought you’d like a break from bug posts, so I’ve pulled this one out of my files.

A couple of months ago I posted pictures of birds and monkeys gorging on fresh fruit. This is a codicil.

In the rain forest, different trees fruit at different times, and so fructivores move through the canopy until they find a fecund tree, and settle in until they have stripped it. The tall tree in the background is such a tree, in Borneo in 2015. If you look closely there are two dark blobs near the top, and those are foraging orangutans:


Borneo is depressingly hazy from the smoke created by fires burning down the rain forest for palm oil plantations, so these photos are taken at a huge distance, in the haze, but I thought you would enjoy them anyway. We were very lucky, this is close to our lodge, but in the forest, not a rescue centre, so they are still roaming in the true wild.

Adult orangutans are solitary, but of course the young stay with the mother for several years. Mama is picking fruit, while he hangs out; this time I can be confident that I am using the right gender pronouns.


Personally, I would have left the kid home with the sitter. It is a long way to fall, but for him (and his mother) it is just another lackadaisical day hanging out in the trees. They use all four limbs interchangeably for locomotion: this photo is taken in a rehabilitation centre for young orphans, and you can see the hands and feet more clearly:


Back in the trees, the fruit is clearly delicious: this is a young male, in the same tree.


He kept his distance from the mother and baby, though our guide thought he was not only hungry but also interested in the female, who did not seem to reciprocate.

In this video, you can just see how she moves calmly, with the baby on her front, picking fruit. She rubs the fruit against the tree-trunk, I am not sure why. At at the end you can also see the young male. Apologies for the noises off, made by other transfixed visitors.


Bornean Orangutans are now classified as Endangered. Their population has dropped by more than half between 1999 and 2015, and it is still dropping fast.  The main cause is habitat loss, caused by logging and oil palm plantations. And a female has a baby only about every seven years, so let’s hope the one in my photo survives. A good summary can be read here:

The Monarchy in miniature

Monarchs are circling around my milkweed in Maine at the moment:


Her mission is not find nectar, but to lay eggs. She finds a small young tender milkweed. and grabs the edge of a leaf, curling her abdomen underneath:

Monarch laying egg

If you keep your eye on that particular leaf, and turn it over after she has gone, there is a single tiny white dot, 1mm across, about the size of a pinhead. It is her egg:


I became mesmerized by the intricate geometry of these minuscule beads: it took somewhere around 40 photos to get these shots.


After about 4 days, the caterpillar emerges. This next photo is taken one day after the photo of the egg:


They are very tiny at first, about 2mm, but they eat continuously: this one is already munching away. They shed their skins four times, and after each shedding emerge bigger and fatter. Each of the five stages is called an instar. The one below hatched about 10 days ago,  probably a fourth instar, and it’s pretty hefty: use the central spine of the leaf as a gauge of the relative size of the newborn above and this heffalump below:

Monarch butterfly caterpillar on milkweed

Monarch caterpillars feed only on milkweed, Asclepius syraica, so I encourage the milkweed on my land, and its sensuous perfume wafts around the edge of my meadow at this time of year. The flowerheads are elegant:


And in closeup they have a lascivious whiff of Georgia O’Keefe:


Here is one of her flower paintings:


Thanks to the Art Gallery of Ontario for this image.

From apoda to myriapoda

(This post is the last of four about the numbers of legs and toes in the animal kingdom. If you missed the first one, on mammals, you might want to look at it because it explains why I have chosen this theme. It was posted on June 29th: )

Invertebrates are thought to have developed limbs completely independently from vertebrates, and the details of their morphology are quite different. So instead of counting fingers and toes, I shall count (mainly) legs, and my examples are in order of increasing leg count.

At the minimist end are creatures like leeches, that have no feet, i.e. they are apodal. This one was from a pond in Maine, and is probably parasitic on turtles.

Leech or flatworm, Heald Pond, July 2013. One inch?

Moving onward and upward, we leap to the grasshopper. Like all true insects, it has six legs, and the last pair are the real powerhouse: look at those quads (or at least that’s what we’d call them in a human):


On the end of each leg, and on some joints,  are two tiny claws to help him hang on. In addition to six legs, they have two pairs of wings, and two antennae, for a grand total of twelve appendages.

Spiders are of course not insects, but arachnids, and they have eight legs:

Orb-weaver Spider

Each leg ends in a  tarsal segment, from which grow three tiny pincers that the orb-weaving spider uses with great precision to create its web. (Hunting spiders have only two claws.)  Spiders also have two more shorter appendages called pedipalps, visible in the photo, which are used for sensing, digging, and sometimes copulating, so in fact they have a total of ten appendages!

Caterpillars are the larvae of butterflies and moths, which are themselves insects, so like the grasshopper they have three pairs of legs at the front emerging from what will become the butterfly’s thorax, but they also have four pairs of prolegs in the middle on their abdomen, and one pair at the back called claspers. These extra ten legs are cylindrical.


They have a set of microscopic hooks on the base. The impressive total is thus 16 legs, giving me an excuse to use the word hexadecapodal.

The winners in the leg count stakes are the myriapods (another great word/world), a group that includes both millipedes and centipedes.  I photographed these in Ecuador. They are millipedes, with two pairs of legs on the majority of segments, and this order, Polydesmida, usually has 20 segments. The “leggiest” millipedes, however, can have up to 192 segments and 750 legs!

Millipedes mating

The internet is a wonderful thing. In an attempt to work out what this group of four poisonous millipedes was up to, I emailed Rick Brusca at the U. of Arizona, who said “I am not a myriapodologist” (best word of the day) and passed me on to Allessandro Minelli at the University of Padova, who in turn passed me on to Sergei Golovatch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The generosity of this chain of scholars, all strangers to me, produced a detailed reply in perfect English within less than 24 hours.

“Dear friends,
The picture of the milllipede from Ecuador definitely shows a species (gen. sp.) of the HUGE family Chelodesmidae (order Polydesmida, class Diplopoda). The bright blue colouration is unusual, more characteristic of a different, purely Central American family, but the few somatic characters I can trace are chelodesmid ones without any doubt. The distributions of numerous Polydesmida are aggregate, but whether it involves courtship or not, remains unknown (at least to me). I doubt it, being rather inclined to think that aggregations better protect. The aposematic colouration* seems to favour this assumption as well. Like most larger Polydesmida, Chelodesmidae (basically Neotropical and Afrotropical), are also poisonous (cyanide producers) and STINK almond when touched…
I hope this short account helps.
Best regards, Yours cordially Sergei”

(*’aposematic colouration’ warns predators that the animal is toxic. I was not tempted to touch them, so I can’t vouch for the almond stink!)

For a final flourish, how about this chap in a cave in Borneo? I counted 64 legs, but Sandro Minelli has better eyes, and says there are 32, each with its own shadow, and that two are antennae, not legs.

Long-legged centipede, a cave-dweller

Both Sandro Minelli and Sergei Golovatch tell me it is a Thereuonema sp. (family Scutigeridae, order Scutigeromorpha, Class Chilopoda), common in Southeast Asia. It is a large and extremely swift predator, a distant relative of similarly frightful and much better known scolopendras. Thank you both.

For astonishing insect close-ups, including feet, look at these:



“..toe of frog….lizard’s leg..”*

(This post is the third of four about the numbers of legs and toes in the animal kingdom. If you missed the first one, on mammals, you might want to look at it because it explains why I have chosen this theme. It was posted on June 29th: )

Today I’ll look at lizards, frogs, and turtles. But let me dispose of the toeless snakes first: here is a harmless and burnished Eastern Corn Snake, photographed in a parking lot in Vero Beach, Florida

Eastern Corn Snake

Lizards have five toes on all their feet. This is a carnivorous monitor lizard:


And an insectivorous gecko, whose toe-pads have bristles like Velcro to help him climb walls. He can hold onto anything except Teflon!

Bibron's Gecko

Caimans and other crocodilians have five toes on their front feet and four on their back feet. There is only one way to photograph the soles of a caiman’s feet; look away now if you are squeamish. The (ex) caiman’s tail is towards the camera.


In chameleons, these five toes are reduced to two (a group of two and a group of three, each grouping swaddled in skin). This photo was taken in Rwanda, where the local people think chameleons are bad luck:

The Malagasy think chameleons are evil spirits

Turtles mostly have five toes on each foot. This is a Painted Turtle, from Maine, facing right:

Painted Turtles

Frogs have four toes on their front feet and five on their back feet. Both frog species below are tree frogs (because the feet of aquatic frogs are virtually impossible to photograph, being underwater most of the time!). Being tree frogs, they have large sticky toe pads to help them grip. Frogs have an annoying tendency to squat on their back feet in a sort of yoga “child’s pose”, so I failed to find a single photo clearly showing a hind-foot toe count!

Spring Peeper, Maine
Spring Peeper, Maine
Tree frog
Gray Tree Frog, Maine

Frogs don’t have usually have claws, but some African frogs have evolved a bizarre mechanism. When threatened, the tip of their toe bone (phalanx) breaks through the skin and acts as a vicious claw! See Blackburn et al 2008, here:  who say ” these are the only vertebrate claws known to pierce their way to functionality” .

When the excellent website Amphibia Web celebrated the inclusion of their 7000th species, they celebrated with this song, and even though for some incomprehensible reason it doesn’t even mention toes, it is irresistible:

Next time is my last post on appendages, finally moving away from vertebrates to invertebrates.

* An obvious title for this post:

2nd Witch:
“Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,–
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”

Macbeth (IV, i, 14-15)

The bird with no feet sleeps on the wind*

(This post is the second of four about the numbers of legs and toes in the animal kingdom. If you missed the first one, on mammals, you might want to look at it because it explains why I have chosen this theme. It was posted on June 29th: )

In flight, you can often imagine that a soaring bird has no feet, and never touches down to earth. Witness this Namibian Augur Buzzard.


But all birds have feet, and most of those feet have four toes, three pointing forward and one at the back. They work extremely well for perching on twigs, like this cardinal:


The same toe-count can be adapted to spread the birds weight when walking on tricky surfaces like lily-pads or mud. This Grey-necked Wood Rail in the Pantanal has caught a fish, but a moment later its catch was stolen by a large tegu lizard:


The toes can be webbed for paddling, like the three front toes of this swan. Note the small fourth back toe.


Or toes can be lobed, like this male coot’s, upended by his rival in a vicious kick-boxing match:


These curious lobes create brilliantly multipurpose feet. In the water, the lobes act like webbing to help with swimming. But on land, when the coot lifts its feet the lobes fold back, making walking through mud easier.

A few birds, including woodpeckers, owls, and parrots, arrange their four toes with two forwards and two backwards. This Hyacinth Macaw is showing the two front toes of each foot:


Here is a close up of the foot of a barred owl, sadly found dead by the roadside in Maine:


The ostrich is the only bird with just two toes on each foot:

Male ostrich and chicks; female was also nearby.

Just like zebras and horses, with their single toe, the adult ostrich can kick powerfully enough to kill a man or a lion, and just like in humans the innermost toe is the bigger one! (The front foot is the left foot in the rather confusing photo below.)

Somali Ostrich

There may be money to be made in offering pedicures to ostriches…

I’ll keep following this digital count, with reptiles and amphibians next.

* My title is an oblique reference to this passage from Tennessee Williams:

%d bloggers like this: