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!

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