Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Robber flies

Robber fly eating a small white moth
I've had the fortune of seeing quite a few robber flies this year (I first discovered these guys two summers ago). Though seemingly nondescript, they're among the most gruesome of all predators. Relying on surprise, robber - or assassin - flies, lay in wait for an unsuspecting prey to come along and then ambush them, taking the insect out of midair.

Butterflies, moths, and many other nectar-loving insects have long, spindly and bendy proboscises. Not so the robber fly, whose short and hard proboscis is thrust into the body of their prey. It's hard to make out in the photo, but they have a bristly mustache on their face that is potentially a face mask that protects them as their prey flails about.

Then like a shrew, they inject the unfortunate insect with a neurotoxin that paralyzes it and, like a sea star or spider, follows up with an enzyme that liquefies the prey's innards. From there, they make an easy job of slurping up the slurry of guts.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Peregrines at Rock Point

On April 6, I wrote an email to the Vermont Bird Listserv:
I was out at Rock Point yesterday afternoon when I heard a peregrine falcon! This was exciting enough, but it got even better. I watched it fly out over Apple Tree Bay a couple of times before returning to the cliffs below where we were perched. We then watched it swoop out and hover low and fast over the ice about a half mile out to the fracture line in the ice. Along the fracture (which runs from Lone Rock Point out to Appletree Point) there are a few gaps that have open water.
When the falcon got out to the fracture line it landed and we realized that there was already another peregrine out there. They seemed to be watching the open water, maybe for fish in search of higher oxygen concentration? After a few minutes the same falcon took off and flew back directly towards us, it got to the cliff where we were sitting and started to land before it noticed us. It turned and flew back to the ice, mounted the other bird, mated awkwardly while she slipped on the ice, then flew back about 4 seconds later, as is the economy of mating in birds, before landing at the thrust fault. It continued to shriek, and make return visits to the icy (though never mounted the other bird) for about an hour.

Over the past few months we've been able to watch from a distance the peregrines nest building, hunting off the cliffs, carrying food back to the nest, and now successfully fledging two young falcons! The young are easily distinguished by their incessant screeching and begging. I was able to photograph the dramatic playing of the young as they half-heartedly swooped down at a family of mallards at Mink Bay. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Planties in a bunch

One of the things I relish most are my memories of seeing animals being fallible - like squirrels falling out of trees or beavers tripping. Maybe it's a bit odd (or worse, sadistic), but my enjoyment is in watching the animals suffer, but the reminder that they are animals just like us, prone to error, confusion, mistakes, emotions, and the drive to struggle on.

My powers of empathy extend first to mammals, next on to other vertebrates, and then invertebrates. I can connect with insects, but my connection is not as immediate and often includes a slight sense of awkward self-awareness around empathizing with this clade. My chain of empathy often forgets the plant kingdom (John Berger wrote that we like to look at animals because, unlike them, when we look at them we are aware that they are looking at us in the same way. But the other day while taking photos with one of the kids at Crow's Path, we spotted a most peculiar plant that reminded me that the struggles of life extend to all living creatures.

Unlike most trilliums (trillia?) that push their way through the duff by pushing leaves out of the way, this unfortunate soul got stuck trying to rend its way through a sugar maple leaf. It got all twisted and couldn't quite make it to the unfurling stage. I often see this pattern with Canada mayflower. The plant presses on with development, flowering in this instance, despite the jumble of leaves. Trillium are perennial so potentially the hindrance to photosynthesis will not matter much this year - perhaps next year it may suffer slightly, leaf out later, grow a weaker/shorter stem, etc. Only time will tell.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The littlest of leaves...

White ash
I've so enjoyed watching all the buds leaf out this year. Each species has its own way of opening up to the warm spring weather - they unfurl, burst, surreptitiously emerge, bolt, elongate, crack, pop, and slither open. What a joy to watch.

Common buckthorn
Speckled alder

Sugar maple


Maple-leaf viburnum
Striped maple

Green ash

White pine

Bitternut hickory

Staghorn sumac

Glossy buckthorn

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


Woodchucklings are on their way. Unfortunately. Despite being obnoxiously adorable, woodchucks are the three-year running champs of destroying our garden. We spotted these little critters on April 17 mating. It doesn't bode well or our veggies this year.

The actual mating process seemed rather uneventful, other than a few high pitched chirrups, but there was a rather long process of nuzzling, smelling, and coyly playing with one another that preceded copulation.