Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Squash Vine Borer

I spotted this creature in my garden yesterday on -- where else -- some young squash plants:

This is a Squash Vine Borer (Melittia cucurbitae), and it's a moth, although it's certainly a strange-looking one. I've done battle with this creature's larvae in my past garden in Connecticut -- the squash plants died after that encounter, the insides of their stems eaten away -- but I've never gotten a chance to examine one of the adult moths up close before. I won't be too upset if these particular squash plants end up dying; they were wimpy things, planted too late, and anyway people keep offering me free zucchini because it's that time of the year. And so now I get to check out this really very cool moth, which walked so obligingly onto my finger and stayed there for an extended photo shoot. (In retrospect, I could have picked a more natural stage for this creature than my finger, but oh well.)

This moth is a wasp mimic, and it does a pretty convincing job. (It even carries itself in a a wasp-like way when it flies.) The bright orange is very striking, and I love those fuzzy back legs:

There's a lot of iridescence going on in the sunlight:

This is one fierce-looking moth:

I like my garden, but I also love moths, and this creature is just so strange and cool. I guess I'll just need to come up with some creative ways to keep its eggs and larvae off of my squash plants in the future!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Summer Warblers and More at the Roy H. Park Preserve

The area around Ithaca is so amazingly full of public green spaces -- between state parks and forests, Nature Conservancy land, Cornell land, and more -- it's hard to know where to even start! Yesterday morning, I decided to explore a small local nature preserve managed by the Finger Lakes Land Trust: the Roy H. Park Preserve. The preserve itself is only a couple hundred acres in size, but it borders much larger state forests and Cornell-protected land, so it's basically a slice in a rather huge expanse of natural area.

Before I even left for the preserve, I got to hang out with two Cedar Waxwings perched in a tree near my driveway; what a great start to the day!

When I arrived at the preserve, the parking area was serving as a concert hall for a Gray Catbird. I've missed these funny/loud birds!

The preserve itself turned out to be really wonderful. I saw no other people the whole time I was there, and there were so, so many animals around. The trail took me through fields and woods, including a lovely Quaking Aspen grove:

And a dark forest of conifers:

At one point, I stopped to watch an Indigo Bunting family -- I don't think I've ever seen baby buntings before! The female was dashing around feeding her rather large but still very demanding fledglings; the male kept flashing past, but I didn't see him contribute much to the proceedings. Here's one of the babies, posing for a quiet moment in between its cries for food:

And then while I was watching the buntings, warblers started showing up. I'd already heard Prairie Warblers calling somewhere out of sight, and Common Yellowthroats had been popping up at various points along the trail, but those are warblers I've met as summer breeders before, during my years exploring southern Connecticut, so they weren't totally unexpected. Now, though, warblers I think of as exclusively spring migrants came practically streaming in. A female Blackburnian Warbler! A female Chestnut-sided Warbler!

(Pardon the poor pictures, but I feel like I need something to prove that this weird summer warbler parade actually happened!)

A male Black-throated Green Warbler zoomed in out of nowhere (and I heard two males calling in the forest later on):

And then a male Magnolia Warbler!

So basically, this is a magical fairy-tale land where many of the beautiful little birds I think of as passing visitors (and therefore special/lucky encounters) actually come to live. And now I live here, too! Why yes, I'll take my May avian sights all summer long, thank you!

Later in the morning as I passed again through the same area, the bird activity had mostly calmed down, except that now the male Indigo Bunting was singing from the very highest perch possible. Tiny blue bird and big blue sky:

Butterflies and dragonflies were now flying all over the place, and I watched a bulky -- and very pink -- orb weaver spider manipulate a recent catch (I think this is a female Shamrock Orbweaver, Araneus trifolium):

Mmm, bugs:

Another spider (a male of the same species, if my ID is correct) crept around on a neighboring stem; I've never noticed spiders quite like this before, but they seem to have a thriving population in these fields:

What a wonderful morning walk. Have I mentioned that I really like it here? :D

Friday, July 15, 2016

Meeting the Neighbors

Our new apartment is a little ways outside of downtown Ithaca, surrounded by lots of fields and woods. It's really lovely. There are even a few small ponds on the property, right near our apartment. I love having easy access to ponds -- a luxury I haven't had since I was little! These ponds are surrounded by thick cattails, with lots of Red-winged Blackbirds in residence. And tons of frogs! So far I've seen only Green Frogs and Bullfrogs here, but there sure are a lot of them. I'd forgotten how big and impressive Green Frogs could be. This guy's bright yellow throat is especially striking:

His huge ears are very impressive as well (and their large size marks this frog as male rather than female); note also the ridges along the side of his back, which are characteristic of Green Frogs and absent in Bullfrogs:

Here's one of the big Bullfrogs that also lurk in these ponds:

We're meeting plenty of new neighbors outside of the ponds as well. A week ago, a bizarre hunter showed up inside our living room carrying her prey:

My best guess is this is a female Grass-carrying Wasp (genus Isodontia) looking for a place to stash the katydid she's prepared (i.e., paralyzed) as food for her future larvae:

She seemed to be carrying the katydid mostly with her mouth, perhaps with some help from her back legs. What an impressive bug. And what a strange sight:

Unfortunately, in the process of escorting the lady hunter outside, she lost her prey. And the next day, I noticed a new (paralyzed, twitching) katydid on the floor of our living room, and a wasp (the same one?) again buzzing around inside. There haven't been any further wasp-with-katydid sightings, so hopefully she figured out that our living room isn't the best place for a nest.

I've started a very small garden here, and even this little growing area is already attracting creatures. It's been very dry here, and as soon as I started watering the soil this afternoon a lovely Common Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus communis) showed up to gather water and nutrients:

I've never seen one of these butterflies before, and I'm really loving its fancy checkered wings and adorably fuzzy blue/gray upperparts:

It's certainly nice to see that there are so many creatures in our new neighborhood. I think this place will do very well as a temporary base while we keep our eyes open for a more permanent home!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Welcome to Ithaca, New York

At the end of our big move, we found ourselves in central New York. More specifically, Ithaca. And here's how I feel about this new location: !!!!

Honestly, of all the places for Paul and I to land, this has got to be one of the locations most suited for us. I grew up in rural western New York, and the environment, the wild plants and animals, the woods and ponds and streams, are all rooted deep in my heart. Ithaca has those familiar things, but it also has -- magically, it seems to me -- robust centers for higher education and research, diversity in its people, thriving food culture, AND extraordinary natural features. Plus, we're only a few hours drive from our respective families. It's a wonderful combination of the familiar and comforting together with the new and exciting.

Speaking of Ithaca nature, here's a taste of the area from our first days here. Yes:

Yes again:

More yes!

Those last two pictures are from Fall Creek, right near the center of town. My goodness. As they say, "Ithaca is gorges." And there's much more like this still out there to see!

The picture at the top of this post is from Six Mile Creek and the Mulholland Wildflower Preserve, where we walked on a hot afternoon earlier this week. Lots of people were swimming in the creek, a Louisiana Waterthrush foraged along the water's edge, and Eastern Chipmunks were all over the place. It's so nice to be around Eastern Chipmunks again. This little fellow had a mossy perch near the path:

And this chipmunk found the perfect spire from which to watch over his/her territory:

A small log floating in the creek seemed to be covered with some protruding material, like nails stuck into its surface:

On closer inspection, this turned out to be the highest concentration of damselflies I've ever seen. The females were depositing eggs in the water (or possibly on the submerged portion of the log?) while the males stuck straight up into the air, balanced on the ends of their abdomens, which were attached to the females' heads:

Wow, what a weird sight. Incidentally, I didn't see these damselflies on any other surface in the creek. There must have been something special about this one floating log.

And of course, I can't give an introduction to Ithaca without mentioning this place:

It is so strange to see in real life an entity I encounter daily on my phone and computer. (All About Birds is my go-to bird ID and information resource, and I use eBird almost all the time.) We walked briefly in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Sapsucker Woods, and the place was just as fantastic as I expected: very pristine, calm, and welcoming. A Green Fringed Orchid (Platanthera lacera) displayed its incredible blossoms near a boardwalk through swampy woods. Seeing a new wild orchid is just about the best welcome to Ithaca I could have!

The pond near the lab's main building was beautiful and so active with bird life:

And right above the visitor center's entrance, a Mourning Dove was calling from her nest:

I've never seen a Mourning Dove nest before, nor a Mourning Dove chick. What a cute little ball of fluff:

So yes, I am very happy with this new location, and so excited to explore more. The best part of all this is: we're here long term. House-buying is even somewhere on the horizon, with the tantalizing prospect of having a bit of woods (and meadow, and pond, and garden, and...) all our own. But that will come later. In the meantime, let the Ithaca adventure begin!

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Big Move

From June 26 until July 2, we drove across the country, reversing last year's move from Ohio to California and tacking on a bit more distance for good measure. Two cars, four people (my parents flew out to California and very generously made the drive with us), two pet rabbits and a turtle, and way too many house plants... and all this for ~3,000 miles, over a planned six days that turned into seven when one of our cars required mechanical attention in Wyoming. My goodness. I still can't quite believe we pulled it off.

Having done an almost-as-lengthy move last year, I had at least some idea of what I was getting myself into, and this time I decided to take greater advantage of the sights along the way. After all, when will I be driving across the country again? (If I have my way: never, ever, ever.) We were on a pretty tight schedule, so there wasn't really any time for serious sightseeing, but we planned our brief rest stops at as many scenic places as we could (mostly along I-80), and we ended up seeing lots of cool things. Here's a map of the trip -- red dots are overnight stops, black lines are places where the pictures in this post come from... and for a spoiler of what's coming next, look at where we ended up!

About halfway through our first day of driving, we stopped off at Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, in the Sacramento Valley of California. It was blazingly hot in the refuge (goodbye temperate coastal climate), and a family of very noisy Western Kingbirds was panting in the heat:

This stop also featured the briefest glimpse of a Black-tailed Jackrabbit as it loped across the path:

By late afternoon that same day, we were up in the mountains at Donner Pass, near California's border with Nevada. This was the first of several rest stops where we found abundant and active rodent populations -- I'm sure the presence of people and their food was a big factor in this! Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels were particularly plentiful here:

Large rocks in the glacial meadow at this rest stop were popular lookout spots for these little creatures:

Several chipmunks (I'm unsure of the species) were running around in this meadow as well:

Halfway through the second day -- again, in blistering heat -- we stopped at Bonneville Salt Flats, in Utah. I don't know that I've ever seen such an alien landscape:

While this place looked entirely barren at first glance, there was actually quite a bit going on. A Common Raven flew overhead, panting:

A female dragonfly -- with the male dragonfly attached -- was depositing eggs on the surface of what I assume was a very salty pool:

From some angles, the two dragonflies looked more like one super-bug:

And I was absolutely delighted by a little Wilson's Phalarope who was foraging in this same pool; this was a totally new bird for me, and its (her?) costume and manner made her very endearing:

She kept swimming in tight circles and snatching up bit of food. I learned later that phalaropes spin to create whirlpools that bring small invertibrates up to the water's surface. What an awesome bird:

Here's a brief video of this phalarope hunting like phalaropes do:

Later that afternoon, we stopped at Echo Canyon in northeastern Utah, where the landscape was about as different from the salt flats as possible:

This place was such an interesting combination of inviting green brush and dramatic cliff faces:

Continuing the theme of rodent abundance, the Echo Canyon rest stop was home to a thriving colony of Uinta Ground Squirrels, which are also apparently called Potguts. :)

These little creatures were very bold and VERY loud, emitting ear-piercing tones right at us from a few feet away. Ah, the life of a potgut looks pretty good from here:

Our planned overnight stay in Rock Springs, Wyoming became a day-long visit while we waited for my car to be fixed. Well, that just gave us the chance to explore another totally bizarre landscape. These rock formations were across the street from our hotel:

I'm certainly not used to seeing cactus flowers in the wild, and this cactus's serious spines were a cool bonus:

We also met a lovely cottontail rabbit (species unknown) during our further adventures in Rock Springs:

On Day 6, we made it to the Mississippi river:

And this was where I really started to feel like we were returning to the east, with Blue Jays calling and other familiar sights all around. A male Indigo Bunting sang from his mostly-concealed perch:

A damselfly snacked on a smaller (newly molted?) bug:

But of course we weren't entirely back in the east yet. An American White Pelican glided in a perfectly smooth and straight line overhead, and it took us all a moment to realize we weren't looking at a plane or kite or something mechanical:

And there's my snapshot of our cross-country trip! A more leisurely pace -- with more time for side adventures, especially out west -- might have been nice, but we were eager to make it to our destination. I'm so very grateful that the trip went as smoothly as it did. And now it's over. And now we're here. And there is so much to explore! More soon!