Friday, September 29, 2017

September Swimmers and Waders

Wood Stork at Bluff Lake
Don’t be fooled by the wide open mouth—the Wood Stork (Mycteria americana) perched in the cypress tree in the photo (taken early this month at Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge) was simply cooling off, not making noise.  But why was it here to begin with?  Wood Storks don’t nest at this wildlife refuge, but, during the summer and early fall, they disperse northward from their breeding grounds in Mexico, South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia.  Flocks are seen regularly in Mississippi during this time.  In fact, a few days after I photographed this perched stork, I saw a flock of twelve soaring over MSU’s campus.  
Wood Stork flock over MSU
It’s a little hard to see detail in this photo, but the outstretched necks of the storks are evident.  Herons and egrets usually fold their necks in when they fly.  The ungainly appearance of Wood Storks belies their grace in the air.  You really have to see a flock in action to appreciate it.  These particular individuals circled around several times, which made me think that they might have been checking out a small pond on campus.  They never landed, though. 
Great Egret at Bluff Lake
Storks nest very early in the year—late winter to spring.  Herons and egrets generally nest much later, so in August and September, the juveniles are busy maturing and preparing to disperse or migrate.  Some species, such as the Great Egret (Ardea alba) will usually remain in an area like Noxubee NWR year-round, but others, like the Snowy Egret (Egretta thula), Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis), and Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea), typically migrate farther south for the winter.
White Ibises at Bluff Lake (didn't get the memo to not wear white after Labor Day)
Like Wood Storks, White Ibises (Eudocimus albus) fly with their necks extended.  Their snowy plumage and decurved bills make them look somewhat similar to Wood Storks, but they are not in the same taxonomic family.  They often nest with herons and egrets in rookeries.  The ibises in the photo were also seen at Noxubee NWR, where they foraged methodically for invertebrates in the mud and weeds of Bluff Lake.  They must have been at it for a while; their necks were covered in mud. 
Common Gallinule at Loakfoma Lake

Just as a reminder that not all lakeshore or wading birds are as ectomorphic as the egrets, herons, storks, and ibises, here’s a Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata).  It’s a stocky, chicken-like little bird, closely related to the much more secretive rails.  Its incredibly long, yellow legs and toes provide an important clue to its behavior.  Along with the flashier Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus), it spends most of its time walking over emergent vegetation (and swimming between the vegetation clusters), and the long toes help to spread the bird’s weight out over the surface area of the leaves.
Finally, a video showing a Purple Gallinule in action!  This was taken a couple of years ago at Noxubee NWR, but it seemed like an appropriate way to conclude this discussion.  Remember to keep your eyes peeled for interesting wildlife.


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Late Summer Birds and Bugs

Ominous clouds at Chadwick Lake, MSU
As the summer winds down, I’m finding myself observing insects nearly as much I observe birds.  For one thing, it’s a buggy time, and the periods of heavy rain we’ve had have seemingly caused population explosions of some of them, especially mosquitoes.  For another, the mad scrambles of birds to find territories and mates and to produce and raise young are basically over for the year; simply holding down those territories, "parenting" fledglings, and preparing for migration are the new priorities, and, at least from our human perspective, these can appear to be slightly more leisurely pursuits than the previous ones—even though they sometimes aren't.

The Mississippi Kites that have been gracing the neighborhood this summer are a migratory species that will leave the area in another month or so.  I’m pretty sure that at least one pair nested nearby earlier in the season, even though I never actually saw a nest.  But three kites—two adults (like the one in the pictures below) and a juvenile—have been hanging around lately, occasionally perching in the snags along the creek or soaring over the open fields.  Their two-syllable, whistled calls alert me to their presence.
Mississippi Kites feed heavily on large insects, such as cicadas, grasshoppers, and praying mantises.  At the moment, the trees are filled with droning choruses of annual cicadas, so it’s no wonder that the kites are spending so much time here. 

As most readers probably already know, cicada nymphs burrow into the ground and emerge to shed their exoskeletons and become adults.  This picture was taken at Jeff Busby Park a little earlier in the year, but it shows a cicada in the process of molting:
 And here’s a picture of a different cast “skin” (really the exoskeleton) in a garage:
This praying mantis that I photographed in the garage at night was enormous—around 4 inches long!  I’m sure that there are many more like it in the area.
July and August have also been great months for viewing butterflies.  Around here, these insects vary in size from the (aptly-named) giant swallowtail (top pictures) to tiny, delicate species like the red-banded hairstreak (bottom pictures), the eastern tailed blue, and the summer azure.
The folded wings of the hairstreak in the photo bulged out slightly on one side, which led me to suspect that the butterfly had only recently emerged from its chrysalis and hadn’t finished drying and stiffening its wings.  This drying process takes a while and can render a butterfly highly vulnerable to predators and the elements.  There's no telling whether or not this little creature survived its ordeal, but, of course, this is an uncertain time of year.