Friday, September 15, 2017

Days Like This

Yesterday was one of those days I live for comprised of seemingly endless hours immersed in nature's splendor. And splendid it was! Yep it's that time of year to behold Splendid Tiger Beetles!

Splendid Tiger Beetle, Spring Green Preserve, Sauk Co, WI 14Sept2017

Months ago, when putting together my work schedule, I penciled in "Spring Green" on September 14th. I had not visited the preserve since early spring. Moving, hummingbird banding and other trials of life have kept me from more regular visits to Spring Green Preserve as well as some of my other favorite nature haunts.

I had intended to get an early start on the day which rarely happens for me. I've become slightly obsessed with documenting the birds and critters in my yard. Therefore with migration still under way, I felt compelled to hang out at home for the first couple hours to see if any new birds came through. Sure enough I added Yellow-throated Vireo to the list. I've also been enamoured with watching "my hummingbirds" and recording total number of individuals each day. My time is fleeting most days. So I've had little opportunity to capture any crushable moments. Yesterday I finally nailed it. I was just about to leave for the day when a hummer buzzed in and obliged me by nectaring on my flowers in decent sunlight for once.

Satisfied with successfully capturing a few hummingbird images, I headed west to the sand barrens and desert prairies. My target was tiger beetles. Mid-September appears to be high season for finding several species especially at Spring Green Preserve. But before heading to Spring Green, I elected to explore a new state natural area for me, Gotham Jack Pine Barrens. A couple months ago I stumbled upon information about this location which became a must-see destination when I read it was comprised of dry sand prairie, sand blows and held the promise of potentially finding Northern Barrens Tiger Beetle.
Powerline intersecting access road to Gotham Jack Pine Barrens
I exhausted the late morning into early afternoon exploring a small segment of Gotham. I immediately found several tiger beetles along the power line that intersected the access trail into the property. These included Big Sand, Festive, Punctured and Oblique. 

Gotham Jack Pine Barrens, sand blow, Richland Co, WI 14Sept2017

Upon finally reaching the sand blows adjacent to the Wisconsin River, I found many more Big Sand and few more Festive tiger beetles.

Festive Tiger Beetle, Gotham Jack Pine Barrens, Richland Co, WI 14Sept2017
The site looked to have good potential for Ghost Tiger Beetle though none were found. I toured the area hopeful to find additional tiger beetle species. For a good while all I could locate were more Big Sand tiger beetles.

Six-lined Racerunner, Gotham Jack Pine Barrens, Rickland Co, WI 14Sept2017
I flushed a six-lined racerunner which was a pleasant diversion from my sweltering tiger beetle search. This is a special concern species in Wisconsin. I seem to have a fair amount of luck seeing one or two in any given year. The racerunner had been chilling in what I will refer to as "heather." I did not make the effort to identify the plant. I suspect it is some type of heather as it had an uncanny resemblance to the "beach heather" I've observed along Lake Superior. This small lizard dashed for cover in another clump of heather as I came walking through the sand blow. Alerted to its presence, I found it sitting motionless in its new hiding spot. Stealthily, I leaned in for a few photos. Upon standing up, I spotted a second one resting in another clump of heather. Its brilliant blue tail had betrayed its location. Once aware of my presence, it too dashed for refuge in another location.

Gotham Jack Pine Barrens SNA, Bronzed and Hairy-necked Tiger Beetle habitat
I continued to search the sand terrace adjacent to the Wisconsin River for a good while finding only a sparse number of  tiger beetles. The time had moved past noon. THE HEAT WAS ON in the sweltering 85+ degree sun. I was beginning to feel a bit desiccated and was running low on water. Crows were making a ruckus in the adjacent pine plantation. I walked into the area for reprieve from the sun and to inspect the situation. The birds scattered upon my entry. I suspect I flushed whatever the crows were so worked up about. Likely a Great-Horned or Barred Owl though I can't be certain since I never laid eyes on the target of the crows outburst.

Hairy-necked Tiger Beetle, Gotham Jack Pine Barrens, Richland Co, WI 14Sept2017

FINALLY persistence paid off, I located a different tiger beetle species when I returned to the sand blows. A Hairy-necked! And just like that, once I spied one, suddenly the sand blow was alive with multiple beetles scurrying about. I estimated at least 12-18 individuals. These were all on a terraced area at least 20 feet above river. They proved more difficult to photograph than the other tiger beetle species, in constant motion and wary of my presence. Anyone who has ever attempted macro photos of tiger beetles knows what a challenge they can be.They must have incredible vision. They flush at the slightest of movements, landing anywhere from 5-15 feet away often landing in a position of facing off with you. They stare you down with their penetrating eyes, vigilantly attentive to you, the threat in their midst. One false move and poof! Off they flee! It can be downright maddening.

Hairy-necked Tiger Beetle, Gotham Jack Pine Barrens, Richland Co, WI 14Sept2017
Despite my low energy I pushed myself to do due diligence and inspect the sand down the embankment of the river. I surmised I might find Bronzed Tiger beetles closer to the river. This species seems to like the wet sand near bodies of water. My trip down the bank was rewarded with the expected Bronzed Tiger Beetles. All had darker, more muted maculations than I've seen on this species before.

Bronzed Tiger Beetle, Gotham Jack Pine Barrens, Richland Co, WI 14Sept2017
Compare the beetle above to this more typical appearing Bronzed Tiger Beetle I photographed in Vilas County, WI in August.

Bronzed Tiger Beetle, White Sand Lake,Vilas Co, WI 6Aug17
On my return trip back to the car, I finally located the actual jack pine barrens of the site. There was more sand I could have investigated, but my energy reserves were low.

Gotham Jack Pine Barrens, the actual jack pine barrens, Richland Co, WI 14Sept2017

I gave a cursory look for Northern Barrens upon exiting the site, but came up empty. I've found this species in Marinette County this year and last. However I have been attempting to find them in locations closer to Dane County, my county of residence. Perhaps another time. This is definitely a place I will be returning to!

Northern Barrens Tiger Beetle, Marinette Co, 12June2017
Next up Spring Green Preserve, a mere twenty minutes from Gotham...but not before I enjoyed a late lunch at the Spring Green General Store. I hydrated and cooled off as best I could during my hour break between outings. However when I hit the desert trail at Spring Green, I quickly realized I had not completely cooled my body temperature from the morning and the hike up the bluff to add Splendid and Common Claybank tiger beetles to my list for the day was going to grueling. AND IT WAS. I hiked the desert prairie trail as quickly as I could telling myself to conserve my energy for the treasures at the top of bluff. As I hiked, I contemplated my insanity given how hot was I feeling. I was unsure if I would be physically capable of making the ascent up the backside of bluff given the heat and my sense of exhaustion from having been in the blazing sun for several hours already. Thankfully the shaded trail up the bluff felt cool enough that I went for it. Slowly, deliberately, up and up I climbed, worrying if my cardiovascular system would hold out. But it was all good.

Northern Black Widow, Spring Green Preserve, Sauk Co, WI 14Sept2017
Arriving at the top of the bluff I found what I believe to be a Northern Black Widow spider. While crouching down to photograph the spider, it suddenly disappeared. I was a bit unnerved worrying I had gotten to close with my lens hood. I briefly became spooked that it was actually on my camera or worse, my person. After inspecting my camera and arms for the small but menacing spider, I discovered it had retreated into the shade a safe distance from me. It's amazing how once I saw this spider, my concern and sense of over-heating subsided.

Northern Black Widow, Spring Green Preserve, Sauk Co, WI 14Sept2017
Finally I walked along the ridge to the bluff top hoping to find Splendid and Common Claybank tiger beetles. Given the paucity of tiger beetles I had seen coming up through the desert prairie trail, I was concerned my efforts would be met with disappointment...Nah. At the top, much like I had seen before during mid-September, the Splendid Tiger Beetles were darting about the rocks and I was elated to see them again.

Spring Green Preserve, east bluff Splendid and Common Claybank tiger beetle habitat
I went to work obtaining some photos. 

Splendid Tiger Beetle Spring Green Preserve, Sauk Co, WI 14Sept2017
I was actually thinking finding Common Claybank would be a long shot. Only one or two had been seen here last year. But when I turned my trunk while keeping my feet planted, bingo, a Common Claybank appeared! Fortunately I was on my game (ever so briefly and rare). I leaned down, keeping my feet motionless and crushed a photo within seconds. Lucky me because in less than a minute, just as quickly as the beetle appeared, it was gone.

Common Claybank Tiger Beetle, Spring Green Preserve, Sauk Co, WI 14Sept2017
Was that the icing on the day? It's difficult to say. It was all pretty damn golden. Black-widow is a Wisconsin life insect for me. I'm fairly stoked about that surprise. 

Spring Green Preserve, east bluff, Sauk Co, WI 14Sept2017
Otherwise much of the day, especially my visit to Spring Green preserve, in some ways was redundant to a September trip I made there last year. BUT it does not lessen the experience or joy. The fact that the Splendid and Common Claybank tiger beetles showed up again this year, as expected, during their expected time, it's comforting. It's exciting! I will NEVER take such redundancy for granted. It tells me some islands of our natural world are still OK. I recognize it could all go away. I live in a state run by Scott Walker and a country run by Donald Trump, where it seems anything and everything is up for sale. Greed and over-population are increasingly putting more pressure on our natural resources. It's pay to play (or destroy). So NOTHING can ever be taken for granted. Unfortunately the crooks running the show do not respect our natural world nor do they value sound environmental policy. eight species tiger beetle, close encounters with six-lined racerunners and black widow spider, and several other goodies along the way, heck yeah, it's golden! It really does not get better for me. This connectedness, it's what makes my life vibrant and drowns out the bad days and bad actors, the haters and cyber-bullies. All that noise is no match for the power of nature. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

Fortunes of Fall

Timing and good fortune were with me yesterday as I ventured out to see if I could catch some fall warbler action at Pheasant Branch Conservancy in Middleton, WI.

Magnolia Warbler, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 7Sept2017

Though I got another late morning start, I found several nice feeding flocks along the mile or so of the creek corridor. I totaled 14 warbler species, all of which were seen within the first hour.

Nashville Warbler, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 7Sept2017
Had I arrived shortly after noon, I likely would have had a much different experience given activity had quieted considerably when I retraced my path over the first half of my walk.

American Redstart, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 7Sept2017

Lighting was low, the foliage was dense and birds were on the move feeding on the ample insects to fuel the next leg of their journey south.

Magnolia Warbler, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 7Sept2017

The process of observing behavior through my lens was far more rewarding than the resulting images.

Tennessee Warbler, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 7Sept2017 
Despite the relatively drab appearance of many of the fall warblers (Tennessee Warbler comes to mind as the most boring of the lot) I can appreciate the nuanced fall hues of certain species like the striking greens on the Chestnut-sided Warbler (sorry no pic) or the faint "bay" washed flanks of the Bay-breasted Warbler.

Bay-breasted Warbler, Dane Co, WI Sept 2015
I think I come to this thought quite often: What the hell is the color "bay" anyway? Did you say, "Google it?" Well I did. I learned bay is a reddish-brown hair coat color of horses. Horses! If I were the betting type, I would put money on the birding gods eventually changing this common name to something more fitting of birds.

A few adult male American Redstarts were around looking just as a brilliant as they do in the spring.

American Redstart male, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 7Sept2017

And "Wilson" too!

Wilson's Warbler, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 7Sept2017

I would argue this fall plumage of the Common Yellowthroat is actually more striking than its spring colors.

Common Yellowthroat, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 7Sept2017

There were plenty of vireos around as well, mostly of the Red-eyed variety. I was hoping for a dance with a "Philly," but settled for eye-level views of this Yellow-throated instead. This species breeds in southern Wisconsin. But since I've had little time to bird this summer, I haven't seen one in a few months. So I was grateful for the obliging views.

Yellow-throated Vireo, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 7Sept2017
Looking ahead to all things nature, I hope to round out my year list of Wisconsin orchids with a some fall-blooming spiranthes species. A visit or two to western Dane County and/or Sauk County in the next week should do the trick. I've done well on my 2017 orchid quest and hope to compile a summary of the orchids I've catalogued this year.

I continue to relish my new yard and am often quite content remaining at home to admire my nearby surroundings. There are still plenty of interesting critters to observe as far as insects go. In addition, migrant birds have been steadily visiting in recent weeks. I believe I am up to five warbler species for the yard with very little effort. I've also tallied at least 4 individual Ruby-throated hummingbirds and I have a Barred Owl that continues to hoot near my bedroom window most evenings. Perhaps strange to some, the resident American Crows are at the top of my list of favorite yard birds. Given their high intelligence I am intrigued by their behavior and wish I had more time to study them.

Until the next time enjoy all this changing season has to offer!

Friday, September 1, 2017

Too Fly for Warblers?

We have passed the mid-August point which roughly marks the onset of southward passerine migration. I was hoping to to get out in the early morning to catch some of the warblers before August's end. However when given the rare opportunity of sleeping versus rising early for birding, sleep has prevailed. Between work, hospitalizations of both parents, continuing projects at my new home and travel to Totality (still reeling from the bliss!) I cannot seem to shake a sense of perpetual exhaustion. 

Last Friday I made a lackluster attempt at birding for migrants. However, as most seasoned birders and those involved in passerine surveys well know, timing significantly impacts detection of passerines. Hence starting my one-hour birding effort midday was met with unimpressive results. 

But time outdoors is rarely lost on me. While midday can be a bust for birds, it's most often rewarding for insects. On this particular day, flies took center stage. 

Peacock flies! 

Initially I had been mostly seeing the ubiquitous Delphinia picta which I've photographed many times. 

Pictured Wing Fly, Dane Co, WI 25Aug2017
But on my passage along the trail back to my car, I began seeing several Peacock Flies. I have seen this species twice before with marginal photography results. Their constant movement and small stature (a few millimeters) makes them a challenge to photograph. The process is fun regardless of the results.

Peacock Flies are included in the class of flies commonly called "pictured wing flies" but carry the more appropriate common name which is likely a reference to the peacock-like patterning and blue iridescence in their wings.

Horse Flies were present too! To most this is just a nuisance biting insect. However I found this particular species, Striped Horse Fly, to be strikingly gorgeous! A search of Google images of various horse flies opened my awareness to what a great photography subject these insects can be. The eyes! Amazing and quite variabley patterned!

An Eastern Forktail damselfly. I've been trying to learn more about the Odes this summer and document my observations. I'm pretty clueless with the identification of this class of insects, but have it on good authority that I got this one correct for once! Again with much in nature, the colors and pattern differences of this insect class are intriguing. 

I also observed two awesome jumping spider species. This big, furry, cooperative specimen....

And this smaller fella. Different or same species? I'm too lazy to investigate. 

Before you know it passerine migration will be done and vagrant season will be upon us. Hopefully I can find the time and motivation to rise early on one of my free days to bid farewell to the jewels of forests. Fortunately my yard has attracted a few warblers so far this season including Chestnut-sided, Black-throated Green, Tennessee, Nashville (sitting on the can when I spotted this species) and American Redstart. So all is not lost on my preference to sleep! 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Total Eclipse 2017

A few weeks ago when I realized I could book a hotel within three hours of the total eclipse, I began to hatch a tentative plan to experience totality. With nudging by my friend Dale who was planning to watch the spectacle in same vicinity as me, my plan solidified within a week of the glorious event. The Great American Eclipse 2017. I went, I saw and it was every bit as amazing, and even more, than what the pre-eclipse hype had claimed.

Eclipse composite 21Aug2017
As viewed from Fults Hill Prairie, IL
Up until late into the evening the night prior, my destination for totality was in flux. My hop off point the morning of totality was Decatur, IL which put me two and a half hours from the path of totality. Anxiety was building leading up to the day. Would the trip to destination totality be a cluster fuck of people and traffic? Would the forecast for clouds and rain reach fruition during the window of totality? I considered viewing spots near the epicenter for the Illinois eclipse, Carbondale. However in the end, I defaulted to "Plan A," otherwise known as "Dale's Plan,"  which credits my fellow nature nerd and friend who came up with the idea to view totality at Fults Hill Prairie Nature Preserve in southwest Illinois. 

"Extreme" warnings!
Fults proved to be an exquisitely perfect location. While there was a small gathering of eclipse enthusiasts, it was far from crowded. I suspect the description of the hike to the hilltop prairie being "extreme" kept the faint of heart away. I was pleased to have avoided the chaos of Carbondale while being afforded spectacular views of the Mississippi River Valley. 

Kidd Lake Marsh and the Mississippi River Valley during the egress of totality
Fults Hill Prairie could not have been more perfect. After ascending the 222 steps which got us half-way to the "top," we traversed an ascending dirt path that took us to the approximate 200 foot mark above the parking lot where the woods opened up onto an expansive hilltop prairie.

We were greeted by this Common Five-lined Skink at the base of the hilltop prairie. He was rather tolerant of the constant activity of eclipse seekers ensuing around him. Many seekers staged themselves at this point up until the half hour before totality since this was the last refuge for shade adjacent to the prairie. 

Eventually our friendly skink host tired of the disturbance and retreated into the log. 

Though I probably should have sought refuge in the semi-shade, we opted for staking out our preferred eclipse viewing location near the edge of the prairie in the blazing sun. 

Total eclipse 2017 stake out
In the hours leading up to totality. we entertained ourselves admiring the various stages of the eclipse and observing the bounty of swallowtails dancing about the prairie. Zebra, Pipevine and Spicebush were among the mix of butterflies along with blues and hairstreaks. Since the heat had quickly taken its toll on my stamina for stalking insects, I accomplished little with insect or flower photography despite ample opportunity.

I found having my scope proved useful for appreciating and capturing sun spots early in the phases of the eclipse.

The sun shortly after first contact with the moon
I was grateful for the somewhat serendipitous chance to share this experience with my friends, Dale and Nina. With Dale's foresight and the collective results of individual planning, I survived the 105 °F heat index despite being inconveniently located away from the car for much of the day. I was adamant about bringing my scope for the experience. So I completed the strenuous ascent with at least forty pounds of optics on my back (an energy sucking endeavor onto itself.) Dale ingeniously carried a bag of ice among his possessions which came in handy for rapidly chilling our Frogg Toggs Chilly Pads which were essential for fighting the heat. It was also Dale's excellent suggestion to bring an umbrella. This proved critical for tolerating the open prairie as long as we did. And of course Nina brought her infectious positive attitude.

The twenty minute window leading up to totality felt a bit dicey as far as my physical endurance was concerned. I had hiked about 100 feet up the gradual incline to the woods to alleviate my bladder ensuring I would not be inconvenienced with having to pee when totality struck. The short walk in the blazing heat left me feeling overheated, shaky and dehydrated. The approaching totality and associated fall in temperature could not have been more timely. I was literally pondering if I would need to bail on the big event and retreat to the air-conditioned vehicle. Fortunately, Dale was thoughtful to provide me with a freshly iced Chilly pad and Nina handed me some orange slices. The cooling relief and a little boost of sugar provided just the nudge to get me to totality.

Dale and Nina in the pre-totality window of 15 minutes
Meanwhile Nature executed her magnificent genius with the sun moving further in alignment with the moon. As the temperature plummeted, the blinding sun dimmed and Nature's most delightful distraction ensued. My sense of any physical discomfort quickly dissipated.

Our "Sound of Music" hilltop prairie in the minutes before totality
No words can capture the sense of awe I experienced in the few minutes prior to totality. The swell of change came fast. Bird song spiked as much as it could for late summer with a noticeable increase in singing Eastern Wood-peewee, Carolina Wren and Eastern Towhee. We noted Chimney Swifts circling overhead preparing to roost. The diffusely dimming light became increasingly surreal and beautiful. And though I had hoped to see the shadow band of the moon, in the flurry of events, I missed it.

Kidd Lake Marsh on the brink of totality looking WNW
Seconds before the sun and moon's most perfect union, the sky to southwest caught our attention, surreal and strangely illuminated. It was in that moment, my senses were flooded. Goose bumps overcame me and I felt the power of Nature like never before. Some say the hair stands up on your neck when totality is breached. Perhaps it did. If ever my breath was taken away, this was it. I held onto that breath fighting back the urge to weep from the sheer emotion of witnessing such an intense swell of sensory overload.

Mississippi Valley on the brink of totality looking WSW
Though I did not capture photos of the Diamond Ring, I surely witnessed it on both sides of totality. Apparently it is debated whether one can safely view and/or photograph the Diamond Ring without a solar filter/eclipse glasses. Judging by the photos that have surfaced of the 2017 eclipse, I'd say many were successful in the feat of capturing the Diamond Ring sans solar filter. Another lesson for the next total eclipse!

Veteran eclipse chaser,Walt, who was viewing his seventh of nine chased total eclipses called out the phases of the eclipse as they occurred (with much exuberance of course). Dale had studied up pre-eclipse and also provided informative commentary. 

Walt blowing post totality bubbles
Viewing totality through my scope provided spectacular views of the solar prominences during totality (visible as pinkish flares in my photos)

But all good things, and definitely those that blow your mind, must come to an end. So after a little more than two minutes, Dale called out "Glasses on!" Totality halted with a final burst of the "Diamond Ring." And not unlike that first rush of falling in love or experiencing that first orgasm, the hook was in. I know I'll be going back for more in 7 years...

Egressing eclipse
As the light increased, blackbirds were visible returning to the marsh after seemingly having gone to roost for their brief two and half minute siesta. Shortly after we made our descent back to the parking lot.

Nina getting pumped for some Totality celebratory bubbly
I would have loved to have stayed to view and photograph the full egress of the eclipse. But I had a long, solo drive back to Madison, WI and my energy reserves were low. I did make time for some celebratory champagne and a share of some Belgian sour beer before hitting the road north back to Wisconsin. 
Walt uncorking the champagne back at the parking lot
Belgian beer share with Vladimir Putin
The typical six hour return trip became a nine hour adventure of eclipse traffic. Rest stops miles away from the path of totality were littered with crowds of people and lines for the bathroom like I've never seen. 

Post-eclipse traffic

St. Louis, MO drive-by en route home

I further extended my return trip by another hour when I pulled a Kramer fail and ran out of gas forcing me to take a brisk 1.4 mile hike in the 10 o'clock hour on a dark Illinois freeway. 

But it was all worth it. Looking back on the day still causes my knees to buckle a little. It was just that phenomenal. Life-changing really. Something to carry my heart for the next seven years when I'll see you on the dark side of the moon!