Saturday, October 07, 2006

Rare bird in North Woods

Though this site has never functioned as a rare bird alert for readers, I'm passing along the following report received a few hours ago from Lloyd Spitalnik [] just to give you an idea of how quickly word gets out these days. If you have ever been mystified by locations such as The Loch, or the Wildflower Meadow, you will do well to click on the link and perhaps print out Alex Wilson's useful map of the North Woods for future reference.

Lloyd Spitalnik just wrote:

Art LeMoine just reported seeing a Blue Grosbeak in Central Park's Wildflower Meadow located in the north end of the park. This is a very good bird in the park having only been seen a handful of times in the last 5 years. The bird was described as being brown (female/immature) and was in the SW corner. The Wildflower Meadow is adjacent to the Loch/Ravine. Here is a link to a map of the north end created by Alex Wilson
Good luck seeing this bird.

PS from MW: The itty bitty picture is Audubon's Blue Grosbeak.

Friday, October 06, 2006

And the winner...

Photo by Bruce Yolton

And the winner of the What was the dragonfly in the Flycatcher's bill Sweepstakes is . . .

James O'Brien! Http:// Even before my designated expert had a chance to respond, James sent in the following note:

I was with Bruce when he took the pic and had seen it snag that dragonfly on the wing. I was amazed how the Great Crested Flycatcher grabbed the Green Darner crosswise on the head to immobilize it. Anyway, I had no idea that gcfs would take such huge opponent out of the air but have seen lesser flycatchers attempt Carolina Saddlebags and I've seen Waxwings after Amberwings.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

A challenge for an expert

Bruce Yolton
took this photo at the Wildflower Meadow, North Woods, last Sunday [October 1, 2006].

The bird is a Great-crested Flycatcher. But what is the species of dragonfly the bird is displaying in its bill?

I thought this would be an amusing challenge for Ed Lam, a friend and former member of the Central Park nature community. [Http://] He is the author of a masterful book -- Damselflies of the Northeast
and a major Damsel- and Dragon-fly expert. Can he identify the dragonfly from a picture of it about to be gobbled up by a bird?

I sent Ed the picture. Let's see if he accepts the challenge.

PS For those of you who read the New York Times, the cover painting of last Sunday's book Review section [showing Julia Child and a lot of other Foodies] is by Ed Lam. Check out the teeny-tiny byline on the bottom right of the page.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Leaderless Orphans

Another amazing photo, this one, by Lincoln Karim, showing a Monarch butterfly in flight over Central Park on October 1, 2000.
[It's not easy to photograph small insects in flight--even harder than photographing bats.]

. Here's an illuminating article from the New York Times website.

Fly Away Home

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Pinching a bright orange butterfly in one hand and an adhesive tag the size of a baby’s thumbnail in the other, the entomologist bent down so his audience could watch the big moment.

“You want to lay it right on this cell here, the one shaped like a mitten,” the scientist, Orley R. Taylor, told the group, a dozen small-game hunters, average age about 7 and each armed with a net. “If you pinch it for about three seconds, the tag will stay on for the life of the butterfly, which could be as long as nine months.”

Dr. Taylor, who runs the Monarch Watch project at the University of Kansas, is using the tags to follow one of the great wonders of the natural world: the annual migration of monarch butterflies between Mexico and the United States and Canada.

The northward migration this spring was the biggest in many years, raising hopes of butterfly enthusiasts throughout North America. But a drought in the Dakotas and Minnesota meant that not nearly as many butterflies started the return trip. And without the late-summer hurricanes that normally soak the Texas prairies and sprout the nectar-heavy wildflowers where the monarchs refuel, many are presumably finding that leg of the journey a death march. Dr. Taylor has already halved his prediction for the size of the winter roosts in central Mexico, to 14 acres from 30.

Nevertheless, the 4,000-mile round trip made by millions of monarchs holds a central mystery that Dr. Taylor and a network of entomologists are trying to solve.

The butterfly that goes from Canada to Mexico and partway back lives six to nine months, but when it mates and lays eggs, it may have gotten only as far as Texas, and breeding butterflies live only about six weeks. So a daughter born on a Texas prairie goes on to lay an egg on a South Dakota highway divider that becomes a granddaughter. That leads to a great-granddaughter born in a Winnipeg backyard. Come autumn, how does she find her way back to the same grove in Mexico that sheltered her great-grandmother?

Wildebeest, in their famous migration across the Serengeti, learn by following their mothers — or aunts, if crocodiles get Mom. But the golden horde moving south through North America each fall is a throng of leaderless orphans.

Birds orient themselves by stars, landmarks or the earth’s magnetism, and they, at least, have bird brains. What butterflies accomplish with the rudimentary ganglia filling their noggins is staggering.

They are one of the few creatures on earth that can orient themselves both in latitude and longitude — a feat that, Dr. Taylor notes, seafaring humans did not manage until the 1700’s, when the clock set to Greenwich time was added to the sextant and compass.

All monarchs start migrating when the sun at their latitude drops to about 57 degrees above the southern horizon.

But those lifting off anywhere from Montana to Maine must aim themselves carefully to avoid drowning in the Gulf of Mexico or hitting a dead end in Florida. The majority manage to thread a geographical needle, hitting a 50-mile-wide gap of cool river valleys between Eagle Pass and Del Rio, Tex.

To test their ability to reorient themselves, Dr. Taylor has moved butterflies from Kansas to Washington, D.C. If he releases them right away, he said, they take off due south, as they would have where they were. But if he keeps them for a few days in mesh cages so they can see the sun rise and set, “they reset their compass heading,” he said. “The question is: How?”

The skill is crucial because of storms. For example, 1999 was a banner year for monarchs on the East Coast; they were blown there by Hurricane Floyd.

Dr. Barrie Frost, a professor of neuroscience at Queens University of Canada, is fairly certain that they don’t use the earth’s magnetic field or the sky’s polarized light. He builds butterfly flight simulators, big barrels open to filtered sunlight with an airflow that a butterfly must navigate with a tiny wire glued to it. Computers sort out the random flitting to say which direction they were aiming for. Repolarizing the light or flipping the magnetic field with a coil does not redirect them, he said.

Dr. Frost believes that sun reckoning launches the monarchs generally only to the south, while mountain chains and the Gulf of Mexico funnel them toward southern Texas.

But once in Mexico’s mountains, they gain elevation and make several sharp turns. Dr. Frost suspects that they are guided by the smell of the previous year’s corpses.

Dr. Taylor disagrees. Butterflies don’t have the odiferous fatty acids that would survive for a year, he said. Disputing the “funneling” theory, he points out that the butterfly biologist William H. Calvert has shown that most monarchs cross central Texas, and his own work has shown that a monarch tagged near the Atlantic or the gulf is only one-tenth as likely to reach Mexico as one tagged in the Great Plains.

“If you end up along the coast, you’re toast,” Dr. Taylor said.

The bad news about this year’s migration may be temporary, but butterflies also face longer-term threats.

Jeffrey Glassberg, president of the North American Butterfly Association, remembers much bigger flocks as recently as the 1980’s. “The whole coast of Staten Island turned orange with butterflies,” he said.

Global warming is shifting the seasons for the wildflowers. New herbicide-resistant strains of corn and soybeans are letting farmers kill off more milkweed patches. Monarch caterpillars eat only milkweed, which contains a poison that makes birds retch. Just like the bright colors of poison frogs, the monarch’s glowing orange markings warn predators that they will regret their dinner.

To get more milkweed sprouting and to support his research (“it’s terrific data, but it’s bankrupting me, and we’re not in a part of the country where philanthropy is easy to come by”), Dr. Taylor sells packets of seed for what he calls monarch way stations. He has recruited people to create nearly 1,000 way stations since April, in private gardens, golf courses, schoolyards and city parks.

The tagging event for families here was part of a much larger effort. Dr. Taylor gives out more than 150,000 numbered tags each year to butterfly enthusiasts from the Rockies to the Atlantic (West Coast monarchs have separate migratory routes). In winter, he goes to the Transvolcanic Mountains in Mexico and spreads the word that he will pay $5 for each one found. That amount, about half a day’s pay for a laborer, is enough to make families spend hours sifting piles of dead butterflies beneath the fir trees where the monarchs roost, semidormant in the chilly fogs at 10,000 feet.

The biggest threat to the migration, said Lincoln P. Brower, a biologist at Sweet Briar College and one of the world’s foremost monarch experts, is the steady attrition of forests because of illegal logging.

Although the Mexican government turned 366,000 acres into a butterfly sanctuary, it has failed to protect them. Convoys of trucks laden with old firs worth $300 each are a common sight on the roads; nearly half the preserve has been logged since 1984.

“It’s unconscionable,” Dr. Brower said. “It’s like mining the Old Faithful geyser for its gypsum. If it isn’t stopped, I’m afraid the whole migration will unravel.”

Yellow-breasted Chat

Not only is the Chat an uncommon bird in Central Park, but this photograph, taken by Lloyd Spitalnik at the Maintenance Meadow on Tuesday is an uncommonly beautiful picture. Check out Lloyd's site for other photographs of Central Park birds and insects, and also wildlife at Jamaica Bay andother Nature preserves. Http://

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Central Park's extreme sport

You've heard of kite-boarding, right? And rip-curling, Freestyle kayaking, Moto-crossing, spring-boarding and all the other new and dangerous "extreme sports."

Well, how about the extreme sport that's all the rage in the Central Park nature community: Bee-kissing.

Photo by Lloyd Spitalnik
Competitor: Nick Wagerik

Pale Male the avenger

Photo by Lincoln Karim at Turtle Pond- 9/31/06

I know that rat! I bet it's the one that steals tidbits from our brown bags left a few feet away from us when we're having a picnic at Turtle Pond. On a few occasions it's come right up to the blanket on which we're sitting. A bold and foolhardy rat-- foolishly fearless of people and, to its sorrow, of red-tailed hawks.

PS Our picnic spot is near the rocks in the picture.