Monday, July 14, 2014

Wachusett Reservoir Highlights

Recently, we have been making some short forays into different gates at Wachusett Reservoir, especially when we have just a little bit of time in the morning to do some birding.  It's been great to watch the nesting loon at Gate 17A.  Last year we watched her for weeks and then the rains came and she lost the nest and the eggs.  This year however, she had two eggs; but we've only seen her with one young.   We've also had several Spotted Sandpipers in this area, including one we keep flushing out of the grass and finally we found some chicks.  Here are some photos of 3 different trips, mostly from Gates 17, 36 and 39.
We first saw the adult sitting on the nest on May 23rd.  We checked on and off for several weeks and first noticed her gone from the nest around the 4th of July.  We talked with a woman who had been watching the nest as well and that pretty much coincided with her records.  Here's a shot of the parent with the young loon on July 8th.
When we checked today we didn't see either bird, but they could just be off in a cove somewhere.  I believe Kevin Bourinot leading the Forbush Bird Club trip there this weekend had this young as well as another successful nest.  There are certainly good numbers of adult Common Loons on the reservoir.
Here are some shots of the adult male Spotted Sandpiper defending his nest....
 Remember in Spotteds the females leave the males to tend the young.
Here are the two chicks we found on July 5th....

And here's one of them on the 8th....seems to me like he's grown in just 3 days!
There are usually Great Blues flying around the coves at the southern end of the reservoir, and I worry that they'll see these little chicks and just gobble them up like popcorn.
After checking on the breeding Eastern Meadowlarks from the dike at Gate 36 today, we decided to walk into Gate 37 which comes out midway down the dike.  We had 5 meadowlarks, including some young birds.  It's great to see them breeding here and we've let Joan Walsh (at MAS in Lincoln) know so that she can work with DCR to save some of the area and not mow it while the birds are breeding.  Seems to have been successful this year.  We also had some nice odonates in the area, including this Familiar Bluet.  There's also breeding kestral in the area so I know they're getting plenty to eat with all the odes that are flying right now.
A regular stop is the overlook at Gate 39.  It's getting to be that time of the year when we can hope for a Black Tern to pass over.
 Just last week we had this nice American Cooper moving through....
 ...and the Calico Pennants are out in full force.  This is a brightly-colored male from this morning.
And it's always nice to catch a dragonfly in flights.  Finally, this morning I got my first definitive photo of a Prince Baskettail!  Very exciting....although we've seen them a number of other places, this was my first non-blurry photo.  It seems these guys never seem to put down...or at least not when we're there.
Mark did his usual walk out to Scar Hill bluffs where he had a couple of more loons, and I stayed in the cemetery and got some nice shots of this male American Goldfinch.
If you only have a little bit of time and are looking for some nice stops along the Wachusett Reservoir, maybe this will give you some incentive to get out and enjoy summer....before it's gone.


Thursday, July 3, 2014

Checking on Grassland Birds in Cheshire ~ Sunday, June 29th

As a follow-up to the MAS Breeding Bird Atlas project a few years ago, there has been an increased interest in protecting certain species of grassland birds that could very easily disappear.  A special follow-up focus has been placed on re-locating breeding Eastern Meadowlarks in the various atlas blocks.  Joan Walsh from MAS (who headed the project) has contacted atlasers and asked them to note specific locations, and if possible re-check the areas to see the status.  In addition they are interested in other species including, Bobolinks and Grasshopper Sparrows.

Since we had atlased 3 blocks in the Cheshire and Windsor areas where Meadowlarks had been noted, we decided to head west to re-check those blocks and spend the day birding.  We also wanted to check on the Cliff Swallow colonies we follow out there as well.
As we were coming down Rt. 116 into Adams we hit a detour.  I forgot that this area had recently received 4+ inches of rain and it appears that several roads sustained damage.  Luckily the detour allowed us to still get access to Ayr Hill Farm, and it was great to see that the swallow colony there was doing well.  Mark had remembered that last year they had lost most of their nests during the breeding season due to heavy rains.  Not only did we count over 100 nests, we also noticed that there were already fledged Cliff Swallows sitting on some of the power lines near the farm land.
We also had several Savannah Sparrows perched up and singing
And the key bird we came to check on, the Eastern Meadowlark, was easily found by it's unique song as well.  In fact we had 3 different singing birds on territory.
 We decided to move on to check our second block, but we ran into another washed out road and we unable to easily re-check the area without spending a tremendous amount of time doubling back and trying to find another entry point.  We will go back and check again in a few weeks, and hopefully the roads will be repaired.  We stopped at a few of our usual places to check on other songbirds, and found this White Admiral with a big chunk of his hindwing missing.  I'm always amazed that this fragile little things can keep flying around after they've obviously lost body parts to birds.
We decided to hike in the Rail Trail in Cheshire and check on the marshes for both birds and, hopefully, see some dragonflies.  We parked near Railroad Avenue and hiked north for about a mile and a half.  There were Redstarts, Eastern Kingbirds and Cedar Waxwings all along the bike path.
We had a Green Heron flying from the marsh on the east side into a pond and we had this female Wood Duck swimming around as well.  We began to notice that all the vegetation was covered with dried mud and you could see along the edges where the higher water line had been.  And we were seeing very few odonates in what should have been perfect habitat.  
As we continued to head north, we kept speculating on the dearth of dragonflies and damselflies.  We had the Hoosic River flowing on our east and lots of wet woodland on our right.  Could it be that the heavy rains caused all the larvae to be silted over just as they were emerging?  I mean it was really odd to not see one single odonate for the first quarter mile.
We did have some buterflies -- mostly Little Wood Satyrs, like this one which looked like he had been through the war already.
And we found this colorful caterpillar moving up a grass stalk.  When we got home Mark identified it as the caterpillar of the Harris' Checkerspot which is an uncommon and local butterfly of wet meadows.  This was a really nice find!

As we were looking at the caterpillar I finally noticed a couple of damselflies low in the grasses including this brightly-colored red one.  Since the male damsels I was seeing all looked like Eastern Forktails with their bright blue tips, I first assumed this was a female.  That is until I looked more closely.  Then I knew that I was seeing my "life" Eastern Red Damsel!!!  WOW, I was excited.  This little ode literally stayed in the same patch of grasses so that when we came back past this area 20 minutes later I could re-find her (I think it's a female.)  Always fun to get lots of photographs of a new species.
So finally we started to see some dragonflies....still not many, but I saw several Dot-tailed Whitefaces sitting on lilypads as we returned down the bike path.  And lots of damsels; some of which I couldn't id or get a photo.

Mark had walked ahead to continue birding while I waited to see what other goodies I could find.  Suddenly he was waving wildly at me to hurry up.  This could only mean one thing:  he's found an odonate that he thinks might be something different.  Sure enough, when I caught up to him he pointed out a green-eyed dragonfly perched on a bush over the Hoosic.  As soon as I saw it through my camera lens I knew it was another snaketail -- only not the Rusty Snaketail we had gotten on the Millers River just days before.  So that meant it was going to be another "life" dragonfly (once I got home and identified it hopefully.)
So even though the bike path didn't have a lot of odonates, it had produced 2 new species for me.  I was very happy.

We drove up Rt. 8 to another overlook of the river and spent a bit of time at the northern part of the bike path, but we had one quick fly by and that was it.  We decided to check some other roads out in Cheshire for birds, maybe do an overlook of the big lake (Cheshire Reservoir) and then head on to Windsor to check our last block for Meadowlark.  As we were driving up the dirt road from the river, we came across this Wood Thrush out gathering food for its young.  I can't quite tell what it has in its mouth, but I prefer to believe it wasn't the dragonfly that flew by us down the road.
The lake was covered with boaters so we made a cursory check and then moved south to a little dead-end road that would give us an overlook of the southern marshy end of the reservoir.
As soon as we got there we noticed all the Common Whitetails flying around...
 ...and in the grasses close to the road there were several spreadwings...most appeared to be Swamp Spreadwings
Eastern Forktails seemed to be everywhere as well...
 ...and when you look at this female Eastern Forktail you can see why I was cautious at first when I found the Eastern Red Damsel.
 And then there were the bluets...grrr.  These little damselflies continue to confuse me, especially the older females which turn dull blue as they age.  There are several species that look almost identical.  In fact most of the identification guides talk about examining in the hand or under microscopes for valid identification.  So I have resigned myself to having a large file called "Bluet species" where I keep these photos.
As we headed home we decided to stop at Moran WMA in Windsor to see if we could hear Eastern Meadowlark, but it was getting later in the day and the walk up to the top of the hill and beyond seemed better postponed for another day when we could get an earlier start.  We did have some wonderful wildflowers in the area and two of my favorites are below.
The Yellow Rattlebox always fascinates me both for it's visual distinction but also because of the noise it makes when it rustles in the wind....a very dry sound....almost insect-like.
 And of course it's always exciting to see Wide-leaved Ladies Tresses (Spiranthes lucida).  This early-flowering orchid is quite rare and only about 4 inches tall so easy to overlook.  Luckily an old friend told us where to look for these delicate flowers more than a decade ago and we try to find them every year.

A great day looking at all the gifts nature has to offer...birds, butterflies, odonates and plants....really who could ask for more?


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Dragonflies in Wendell ~ Sunday, June 22nd

WARNING:  If you are not into dragonflies, then you need to close this post right now.  As most of you know I've become somewhat obsessed with odonates this past year.  Remember in spring when I was whining while waiting for my first sighting?  Well, I may have hit my saturation point this past weekend (not really).  But of the 33 photos in this posting, 26 are of dragonflies and damselflies!

This past Sunday we decided to stay somewhat local.  We had traveled to the Berkshires on on Friday and done the southeast coast on Saturday, so we thought we would poke around in Wendell, MA which is just slightly northwest of Quabbin.  The area is loaded with marshes and swamps and we figured it would be good for dragonflies.  We also wanted to explore the Wendell State Forest and then end up at the Millers River in Erving to check on odes there.
On the way out we stopped at a great little marsh on Moosehorn Road right off of Rt. 202 in New Salem on the way to Wendell (next town to the west).  And even though it was just after 7 and a bit cool, we had our first dragonfly -- Frosted Whiteface.
We also had an unusual sighting of a moth sitting on a lilypad.  When we checked the ID in the new Peterson Field Guide to Moths, it turned out to be a Ploymorphic Pondweed Moth -- so maybe having it out in the marsh on a lilypad wasn't all that unusual after all.
 Further along Moosehorn and Jennison Roads in Wendell we checked out other marshes and beaver ponds.
Along the dirt road we started to see our first butterflies -- this Red-spotted Purple.
And we had this immature Swamp Spreadwing perched on a leaf overhanging the marsh.
This female Common Baskettail was also just hanging out....
 ...along with this teneral Slaty Skimmer.  I remember when the first tenerals started to appear in May.  I was so confused by the Four-spotted Skimmer and the Hudsonian Whitefaces I was seeing.  Now it's a bit later and those guys aren't as confusing, but the new odes emerge (like this Slaty Skimmer) give me a chance to learn who new families.  I feel like a perpetual student.
As we continued along Jennison Rd. making our way to the state forest, we stopped at a small cemetery (South Cemetery) which had yet another boggy marsh nearby.  Although I didn't get a photo we had a couple of Elfin Skimmers in the cemetery, along with this Eastern Pondhawk perched on a low gravestone.
Even though you can't see the face, this is a female Hudsonian Whiteface.  Even though I've seen close to 100 this spring, I still needed help in identifying her and I'm so grateful that I'm on the Facebook page of Northeast Odonata which I can just ask for help...and get it.  I do have to admit, though, that it was Mark who made the ID on this one.  He's actually gotten great at not only spotting the odes, but rather quickly getting them into the right family based on overall size, shape and proportions.
As I stepped closer to the little pond across the street from the cemetery, I had lots of Chalk-front Corporals landing on me.  This is my first Chalk-fronted selfie!
At the state forest we drove some of the major dirt roads and our attention re-focused on birds since it was a wonderful mixed deciduous and coniferous forest.  We had lots of Red-eyed Vireos, Ovenbirds and Scarlet Tanagers, along with the calling Eastern Wood Pewees.  Most of the birds were staying out of sight, but you could hear the Black-throated Blue Warblers everywhere since the place was loaded with Mountain Laurel.  At a small pond we stopped to check for dragonflies again, and we weren't disappointed.
We had several Aurora Damsels, including this mating pair.  Plus there were several other species of dragonflies buzzing around the pond.
At the exact same moment, both Mark and I saw a dragonfly hit the water and not fly back up.  We had a similar experience last summer at Otter River where we had to rescue a young ode by throwing enough branches into the water so that he could climb up and dry out.  This time the dragonfly was out further than any sticks we could find and certainly further than the net we sometimes use for catching odes.
Also it didn't seem like this little guy was moving very much, so we thought he might have passed.  Suddenly he started to move and we went into high gear with getting branches close to him without swamping him.  We weren't sure how much time we had before he would drown or a frog would get him.  He finally made it to a small log, and while he could hang on he couldn't quite pull himself.  I finally found a very long but skinny branch (about 10') and slowly tried to move the branch closer to shore.  I had to make sure that I moved slowly enough to keep him coming in, but not roll the log and swamp him.  Mark went and got the net out of the car, but as he got close to the shore he went down for what we thought was the last time.

I was crushed.  It wanted so much for it to have a happy ending.  We looked and looked, but couldn't refind him.  As we started to focus on the other dragonflies flying around, Mark spotted our little friend very close to shore and scooped him up in the net.  He looked totally drowned, but we decided to place him in a sunny spot and see what happened as he dried out.  I was able to get some terrific shots with my macro lens and feel pretty certain that this was a Twin-spotted Spiketail -- a new species for us.  While we thought he had passed at this point, about 10 minutes later when I went to check on him, he had crawled onto a log and was obviously still alive.  At this point I told Mark I wanted to leave before anything else happened and I could just tell myself he recovered and flew away!

So while that ended happily, unfortunately when I got home and downloaded the photos I inadvertently ERASED all the photos from my camera with the macro lens before downloading them.  This is the first time I have ever done that and didn't even realize it until yesterday morning when I was cropping photos and kept going " hey, where are the shots I took of the rescued ode?"....."where's the Fragile Forktail; I know I took a close-up"..."hey, where's the scenery show I took of the rock formation in Wendell SF" and so on and so on.  Lesson learned:  wait at least a day before erasing what's on the camera.
After the tension of that rescue, we moved down toward Wickett Pond and took a couple of paths near the pond.  It was great to be in an area with so few other people, and even though the pond was quite large we saw only a couple of kayakers and one couple with a toddler in a canoe.  And we only ran into two people on mountain bikes and one woman walking a dog.  At the pond we did have lots of dragonflies though. BTW, there was a really nice photo of Wickett Pond taken with the other camera, so you'll just have to imagine it for now!
We had a nice Wood Frog on the trail near the pond, and this White Corporal was a new species I photographed.  Even though they are quite common, I had never gotten a photo before.
At the pond itself we had Lilypad Clubtail.....
 ...and Unicorn Clubtail.  These two species actually look quite alike, although my photos don't show that, so I keep wondering if I've correctly identified these two species.
We also had a "life" beetle -- an Eyed Click Beetle, which is quite large.  Mark had it fly by and thought it was a hummingbird.  The adults feed on nectar and plant juice, so it landed on a Mountain Laurel bush and just started to suck on the stems.
We also had our first of the season Calico Pennants...although this guy looks like he's been through the ringer already when you look at his hind wing.  A bird must have caught him when he was a teneral and it just didn't develop.
After leaving the state forest we headed northwest along Farley Road to get to a bridge across the Millers River.  Along Farley Road though we came across a great marsh with an active Great Blue Heron rookery...and lots more odonates.
We also had this female and 7 young Wood Ducks heading for cover as we pulled off the road.
Damselfies were everywhere.  In fact this is where I got a great shot of mating Fragile Forktails with my macro lens.  Grrrr, another of the photos that never made it to my computer.   But I did get shots of Familiar Bluet.....
 ...and lots of Northern Bluets.  There were probably Boreal Bluets as well, but I'm still learning to ID most of the damselflies.
For me, one of the easiest dragonflies to learn was Twelve-spotted Skimmer.  At first I got confused with the female Common Whitetail, but there's no mistaking a male 12-spotted with the white in the wings.
And Spangled Skimmer is another one that's easy....thanks to the white marks on the wings, which is there is both males and females.
At the marsh we also had some darners flying around and spent when I say "flying around" I mean zipping by fast and never stopping....well almost never.  After about 15-20 minutes we spotted one put down on a small weed in the middle of the pond and I just started snapping photos.  When I got home and enlarged it, I found that I had captured a Spatterdock Darner laying eggs on the underside of a lilypad (which is what they do.)  This was really exciting for a couple of reasons.  First, this is the first Spatterdock we've ever seen, although we looked for them lots of places this spring.  Secondly, I love to capture a dragonfly displaying natural behavior in the wild rather than net them and takes shot in the hand.  I know that it's sometimes necessary to absolutely ID an ode, but there's something so satisfying when I can ID it without interfering with it.  And finally, we watched a bullfrog leap out of the water and try to catch the dragonfly as she finished laying eggs.  Luckily, she was too fast for him.
Our last stop of the day was a great stretch of the Millers River in Erving near the wildlife management area.  Last year we were excited to find a good number of Powered Dancers here, and we hoped to repeat the experience.  The first thing we noticed (and we saw this last year as well) was the amount of exuvia on the rocks in the river...both close to shore and farther out.  In the photo below you can see at least two different cast skins left behind as the dragonfly undergoes metamorphosis from a larva living and breathing underwater to an aerial-feeding insect.  This transformation is absolutely mind-blowing to me.  I would love to see a dragonfly emerging from the last larval stage and fly away....just haven't been lucky enough yet to see it.
And we did have lots of Powdered Dancers on both sides of the river.....
...including this immature....possibly a brown form female....well disguised on a tree stump.
Ebony Jewelwings were everywhere on the river.  I love how sometime the males look brilliant green and at other times a deep turquoise.  I have to admit though I was hoping for a River Jewelwing which is supposed to be common throughout interior MA.
We ended the day with my most exciting sighting of the season so far.  Mark spotted a dragonfly sitting on a rock and knew immediately it was not something we had seen before.  I was able to get some great shots of her before she flew off and made a beeline straight up the river away from us.  When I downloaded the photos I was able to immediately identify her as a female Rusty Snaketail.  Paulson's Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East states "Female oviposits in straight fast runs upcurrent, perches between brief bouts and extrudes orange-tan egg mass."   I obviously captures one of those brief bouts where she was sitting on a rock with the egg mass before zipping off up river to lay her eggs.  WOW
I can't tell you how exciting Sunday was for us....several "life" dragonflies, an amazing rescue and all in a wonderful town in north central MA.  I know this was a long post, but I hope you stuck with it....and enjoyed sharing my excitement.  Leave a comment and let me know....thanks.