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.

Beaver buffet

There was so much to tell you about in the spring that I saved this post to send during the dog days of summer, and here we are…

In spring, I expect to see beavers eating green stuff, but this one was still enjoying his hemlock twigs. He or she took it to the shallows, and delicately nibbled at the bark, or rather the cambium beneath the bark.

beaver on granny's pond

His technique reminds me of my grandson eating an ear of corn:

You can find the by-products all round the pond: sticks cut into a convenient length for moving and eating later (think packed lunch), and then denuded of their bark.

beaver on granny's pond

Sometimes they just eat it on the tree, and leave the tree standing:


In a few days he was back, in the same place, this time with a large white slice of what I think was the root of a cattail (called bulrush in England). These roots (or rather rhizomes) are nutritious, with roughly the protein content of maize or rice.

Beaver eating cattail root

You can see how dexterous they are, though of course they do not have opposable thumbs:

Beaver eating cattail root

The roots of aquatic plants are one of their favorite foods at this time of year, and you can see them floating around the edge of the pond, the result of their depredations.

Spatterdock root eatern by beavers

In this video you can hear him chewing, above the background noise of the stream cascading over the dam:

I have not seen him for many weeks, but I am hoping he returns in the fall, getting his lodge and his food supplies ready for winter. Watch this space.


The gardener’s nemesis

Not every post can be about elegant swallows. Sometimes what catches my attention is less obviously appealing.

My father hated greenflies, because they attacked his beloved roses. Greenflies are a type of aphid, and here in Maine we have a number of different species, in a rainbow of colors, including the bright yellow Oleander Aphid, Aphis nerii, common on milkweed:


and these ruby red ones, probably Uroleucon nigrotuberculatum.


If you can suspend your distaste, they turn out to be rather interesting.  They reproduce partly by parthogenesis: the adult female produces live young, clones, without the need of a male. In the autumn, they also reproduce sexually: rather like modern humans, there is no one right way.

Although most aphids don’t have wings, as you can see in the photos above, if the neighborhood gets too crowded the female cleverly gives birth to some offspring with wings, and these then fly off to populate a new plant instead of adding to the throngs on the current one.  The biggest one below has wings:


If you are a gardener, you are no fan of aphids, but if you are an ant, your attitude is entirely different! Some species of ants actually farm aphids for their honeydew:

Ants farming aphids

The aphid sucks sap from the plant, sometimes in huge quantities. Because it can’t digest it all, it excretes a sweet sugary liquid, called honeydew. The ants use their antennae to stroke the aphids, which encourages the secretion of the honeydew, which the ants then drink. The aphids below are tiny, but just visible on the leaf stalk:


The aphids benefit because the ants protect them from predators such as ladybugs, and also move them from wilting to healthy plants. In some species, the ants will store aphid eggs in their nests through the winter and then put them back on the plants in the spring. This partnership is an example of what biologists call mutualism, since both parties benefit from the arrangement.

The spiky cornicles that project from the abdomen are used to exude pheromones for defense purposes; the honeydew is, rather off-puttingly, exuded from the rectum!

If you have read this far, congratulations: you too are obsessed by natural minutiae.




Learning to swallow

I started this blog three years ago, with photos of tree swallows nesting in an old martin house:


But tree swallows are really supposed to nest in dead trees, hence the name. This summer, on June 21,  they were nesting by my big beaver pond, something I hadn’t yet noticed, but luckily Mary Jewett’s sharp eyes spotted it. See the holes in this dead tree?

Tree swallows

The parents come and go with food, wedging themselves into the smallish holes:


And squeezing out again once the food has been delivered:


Sometimes a nestling sticks their head out, so the adult takes the opportunity to ram a large dragonfly right down her offsprings’s throat.


The youngster seems a little uncertain how to handle this rather large dragonfly :


But he gets a grip, and the mother checks before leaving:


And the nestling bravely gets it down:


No messing about pretending to be an airplane for 5 minutes when feeding your toddlers: just force it down their gullets.


Maybe human parents should pretend to be swallows, not airplanes?

Much of the feeding is done in a brief encounter while the adult remains more or less on the wing. The chick gets ready:


and the food is transferred:


Occasionally they take a well-earned rest:


A Bullfrog and his Water Shield

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This is an American Bullfrog, looking as though he is waiting for his girlfriend, complete with floral offering.

American Bullfrog

He sounds like this:


The tiny pink flower belongs to a plant named after the shape of its leaf, Water Shield, Brasenia schreberi,


On my  pond  it covers huge areas at this time of year:

Water Shield

The unimposing flowers repay closer scrutiny. Water Shield is pollinated by the wind. The flowers have a two-day blooming period. On the first day, the functionally female flower extends above the surface of the water and exposes the pale pink receptive stigmas.

Water Shield

The flower then recedes below the water surface and on the following day re-emerges as a functionally male flower. It is taller now, and the darker red anther-bearing filaments are extended beyond the female carpels:

Water Shield

The anthers release the pollen, presumably to find a younger female flower, and the flower is then withdrawn below the water where the fruit develops.*

As you can see, they have a clear jelly all around the stalk, which persists as they grow taller. The underside of the leaves is also coated with it. This may be to deter grazing snails, though it doesn’t stop the beetles that eat the leaves from the top!  Despite this jelly, or maybe because of it, the leaves are a delicacy in China.

* This excellent description is paraphrased from Wikipedia. Don’t you love/hate the fact that even in the plant world, older males seek younger females, even if it is only the difference one day makes?

Butterflies: seeing double

Provided one doesn’t feel like a peeping tom, photographing butterflies is often easiest while they are mating. It is a prolonged process, indeed sometimes they fly around while conjoined, but not surprisingly they prefer to stay put.

This summer I have seen three species that I haven’t identified before.

First, the Viceroy, Limenitis archippus (or Basilarcia archippus). Perfectly named, because it is a deliberate copy of the Monarch. Monarchs are poisonous, but Viceroys are not. Their nearly identical color and patterning deceives birds into leaving them alone too.


The Great Spangled Fritillary, Speyeria cybele,  has silvery dots on the underwing, alluded to in its common name. I think it looks like a little girl’s party dress.  They are seen here mating in late June, but they then disappear, and reappear to lay their eggs in late August or September on violet leaves.

Great Spangled Fritillary

The Inornate Ringlet, Coenonympha tulle inornata,  has a very unflattering name, and I can’t work out why. Possibly because the eye marking on the wing is faint instead of dramatic??

Inornate Ringlet

In this era when the climate is changing, we expect to find species moving northwards, but this butterfly has been moving south from Canada. The first ones in Maine were seen in 1968, and now they are abundant all the way down to Massachusetts.

Finding each other out there in the fields and forests isn’t easy, but these six have done it.  Happy days.