2017 Birding Goal: Achieved!

This will be a quick (and possibly boring to many of you) post. I am writing today simply to affirm a personal achievement. I decided early that 2017 would be the year I got better at birding. As a part of that ambition, I set the goal of compiling a 2017 year list of at least 162 birds. Why 162? As of 12/31/16, my life list stood at 161 bird species. As I learned more about birds I questioned some of those records enough to reduce that total somewhat but chose to retain the original goal. On a day trip to Assateague Island last Saturday, two new year birds put me over the top.

Pelecanus occidentalis (18)The first of these was a brown pelican spotted from the car as we crossed one of the small bridges on the Eastern Shore. Once we arrived at the beach I saw a couple dozen more. There’s nothing particularly special about this bird, except that I hadn’t seen one yet in 2017. Brown pelicans are large, unmistakable, and common so therefore an extremely easy box to check provided one spends a little time in their habitat.

The second was a least tern. Again, it’s a fairly common bird and marking it off is only a slightly higher bar to clear than the pelican. Still, I have only recently learned how to separate terns (and am as yet not great at it), so this one felt more significant. During strolls up and down the beach I spotted 4 or 5 more of these small birds. The other birds I saw this day were repeats, but I was struck by how much easier they were to identify than when I began this focused effort. More importantly than the list is the seeming success of the method of self-instruction. It seems, at least for me, that intense focus on one subject is a better way to build my knowledge of the natural world than simply studying whatever I find.

I suppose now is the time to get the list itself out of the way before I ramble on too long. If you’re interested in seeing the first 104 entries on my 2017 year list, they are enumerated in three previous posts here, here, and over there. New life birds are in bold.

105. broad-winged hawk
106. Baltimore oriole
Icterus galbula (5)
107. wood thrush
108. green heron
Butorides virescens (9)
109. purple martin
Progne subis (1)

110. ovenbird
111. eastern wood-pewee
112. indigo bunting
113. solitary sandpiper
114. chimney swift
115. cedar waxwing
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116. orchard oriole
117. veery
118. common yellowthroat
119. red-eyed vireo
120. yellow warbler
121. eastern kingbird
122. northern parula
123. Swainson’s thrush
124. American redstart
125. bank swallow
126. blue grosbeak
127. great crested flycatcher
128. boat-tailed grackle
129. ruddy turnstone
130. laughing gull
Leucophaeus atricilla (2)
131. dunlin
132. red knot
133. sanderling
134. semipalmated sandpiper
135. short-billed dowitcher
136. willet
Tringa semipalmata
137. common tern
138. snowy egret
139. American avocet
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140. semipalmated plover
141. black-bellied plover
142. least sandpiper
143. wild turkey
Meleagris gallopavo (2)
144. white-eyed vireo
145. yellow-breasted chat
146. ruby-throated hummingbird
147. scarlet tanager
148. field sparrow
149. prairie warbler
150. acadian flycatcher
151. willow flycatcher
152. cliff swallow
153. spotted sandpiper
154. little blue heron
Egretta caerulea (4)
155. yellow-billed cuckoo
156. pectoral sandpiper
157. lesser yellowlegs
158. horned lark
159. black-and-white warbler
160. least flycatcher
161. brown pelican
162. least tern

Reflecting on the full list, a few things are apparent. First: given how many very common and distinctive birds are new to my life list, I had a pretty pathetic life list going into this year. Second: given the total number of new-to-me birds (55), it would really be better for me to tack on at least a handful of additional species to be really certain I’ve hit the mark. I’m not self-assured enough to believe that all 162 birds are 100% certain. I tried to set a very high bar for counting a bird, but I’m far from perfect and still honing my skills. Third: I never would have gotten close without ebird.org and Cornell’s all about birds website and Merlin Bird ID tool. I know I have plugged these things unrelentingly, but for good reason.

So, what’s next? There is still plenty of time in 2017 to expand this list. I have an upcoming trip to the Rockies which should yield new opportunities, and the bulk of the Fall migration is yet to come. Juveniles and winter-plumage birds are more of a challenge than their adult and spring counterparts, but there’s no reason I can’t pick out at least a few more. Can I reach 200? That seems like a nice round number to aim for now.

Final note: photos above are not necessarily the same individuals identified this year, but all are my own.

 

Butterfly Garden Progress Report Part 1 of 2

As the peak season for my butterfly garden begins to wind down, I find myself contemplating how it has performed over the past few years. It certainly has looked more impressive in each successive year, and most of the plants have continued to thrive. Yet, I don’t think that’s quite how I should measure the success of such a project. I don’t mean to say that I shouldn’t derive any satisfaction from the growth of the plants themselves – I certainly indulge in that sense of pride and I think that’s fine. The goal of this garden, though, is to support local biodiversity. If it’s not doing so, it’s failing and requires some analysis and change.

Unfortunately I can’t do a particularly scientific investigation. I’ve no control, since I didn’t do any kind of exhaustive analysis of the life in my yard before the butterfly garden. I’m still learning to identify a lot of the local fauna and so any trend of increase would be suspect. All I can really do is make a list of living things I have identified in my yard and record cases of animals exploiting the butterfly garden. Lack of scientific rigor aside, that’s not nothing!

Butterflies and Moths

Seems like the obvious place to start, no?  So far I have managed to count sixteen species of butterflies and seven species of moths in my yard since beginning the garden. That seems like a fairly small number, but there are certainly quite a few unidentified moths and some unidentified butterflies who have visited. Moths can be particularly vexing – the Maryland Biodiversity Project lists 2,529 species reported in Maryland alone.

I can only confirm one species of butterfly, the monarch (Danaus plexippus), as having completed a full life cycle in the butterfly garden. many others have taken nectar and I’ve spotted quite a few unidentified caterpillars, but monarchs are the champs.

Above we have a complete monarch life cycle all documented within my garden: egg, hatchling caterpillar, late instar caterpillar, pupa, and adult. Thank you milkweeds!

Probably the most common visitors, or at least the most commonly seen due to their large, ostentatious nature are tiger swallowtails (Papilio glaucus). Their host plant is the tuliptree, which is abundant in the area. I don’t get to watch these guys grow but the adults are beautiful enough on their own.

I’ve also seen a handful of black swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes). These guys can be tricky to distinguish from the dark morph female tiger swallowtails, but a ventral view can cinch it for you. Black swallowtails have a second row of orange spots which the dark morph tigers lack. Black swallowtails feed on dill, parsley, fennel, Queen Anne’s Lace, and related plants.

Papilio polyxenes
Black swallowtail. This one’s a little tattered, but I got a good look at the two rows of orange spots on the underwing.

Some butterflies aren’t quite as exciting as others, and here I move from the largest, showiest bunch to the most boring: the cabbage white (Pieris rapae). Next to the tiger swallowtails these are probably the butterflies I see the most, and I usually don’t even bother trying to photograph them. Nevertheless, they are butterflies so they most certainly count!

Pieris rapae (1)

In the same family (Pieridae) as the cabbage white is the larger, more attractive, and less common cloudless sulphur (Phoebis sennae). This can be separated from other sulphurs in our area by size – by comparison it is quite large. They’re not known to successfully breed in Maryland, but where they do breed partridge pea is a preferred host plant.

Phoebis sennae (1)
Cloudless sulphur taking nectar from a petunia

I’ll take the next two species, from family Lycaenidae, together because of their superficial similarities. Both are small, blue butterflies with splashes of red. They are both tiny enough to often go unnoticed. Without a detailed look at their markings, both are easily confused for one another and for many similar species throughout their respective ranges. The eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas) is one of the most common butterflies of the Mid-Atlantic. I never realized this until last year, but once I was armed with this information I started seeing them constantly. However, due to their size and abundance other small, blue butterflies can often be mistaken for this diminutive wonder. Among those similar species is the red-banded hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops), which happens to be the only other member of Lycaenidae I have found in my yard.

Calycopis cecrops (1)
a red-banded hairstreak

This next group, collectively called “skippers,” is sometimes separated from butterflies and moths as a third group of Lepidopterans and is classified in family Hesperiidae. I have no opinion on whether skippers are “butterflies” or something similar but different. I am including them with butterflies here for simplicity’s sake and not to take a stand. I do have an opinion on their confusingness: namely, they are. It’s a  challenge to identify skippers to species, with a few exceptions. So, take some of my specific identifications below with a grain of salt, although I have tried to be careful to count only those I have some reason to be confident in.

Epargyreus clarus (7)
Silver-spotted skipper

The silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus) is one of the exceptions. It’s a large, common skipper with distinctive markings and as such is incredibly helpful to the curious naturalist. That said, I’ve never found it a particularly compelling species and so I am ready to move on.

Ancyloxypha numitor (1)
least skipper, I think

There are a LOT of small, basically orange, skippers. I believe the above is a least skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor). Even if this individual isn’t, I am quite confident that some of the skippers I have seen are. I don’t necessarily have photos of the individuals which are the most definitively representative of the species.

Atalopedes campestris (3)
Sachem – confirmed by bugguide.net

There are also quite a few small, basically brown skippers. Further confusing things is that some of them vary by sex and some species are sometimes brownish, sometimes orangeish, and there’s a bit of inherent overlap between what is “brown” and what is a sort of dirty orange. Apparently the truly diagnostic features can involve antenna shape and length, body shape, and other similarly hard to spot identifiers. Fortunately for me, the above skipper was identified by the experts at bugguide.net as a sachem (Atalopedes campestris).

Polites peckius (1)
Peck’s skipper

This one was also IDed for my by the bugguide folks (who I can’t plug enough as a naturalist’s best friend) as a Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius). I arrived there myself first but it is always nice to have that expert corroboration. Anyway, see what I mean with all that “orange” and “brown” business?

Poanes zabulon (7)
zabulon skipper

I identified this zabulon skipper (Poanes zabulon) on my own. I was fortunate in that it is a female, because they seem much more distinctive than the males (which fall into that category of small, pale-orange skippers with similar patterns).

I’ll close out the butterflies with probably my most tenuous ID: the fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus). Here I am going by the tiny dark spots on the orange wings, and I am really not sure that’s quite enough. This is a known and fairly common species in Montgomery County that does have those characteristics. I’m not quite knowledgeable enough to rule out all other species for certain.

Hylephila phyleus
fiery skipper

Butterfly visitors not pictured: clouded sulphur (Colias philodice), pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos), and painted lady (Vanessa cardui). I’ve also caught glimpses of fritillaries (probably but not certainly great spangled fritillary) and a probable common buckeye or two.

Moths, as I mentioned above, are a far more diverse group of insects than butterflies. It’s a near certainty that more species of moths than butterflies have visited my butterfly garden. Somewhat paradoxically, that diversity so complicates things that I have only identified seven moth species.

Probably the coolest of these is the hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe). These things really do look and behave very much like hummingbirds.

Hemaris thysbe (6)
hummingbird clearwing
Epimecis hortaria (1)
tulip-tree beauty

The tulip-tree beauty (Epimeces hortaria), named for its host plant, is a bit drab but oddly beautiful for all that drabness.

Returning to the realm of moths that aren’t classically mothlike, I occasionally come across the ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea). This little guy looks like a “true bug” or plant bug at rest but flies like a wasp.

Atteva aurea (1)
ailanthus webworm moth

My favorite moth find in my garden has to be Hypocala andremona, a species of “underwing” moth most common in Texas. Its host plant is the persimmon, one of which hangs over from our neighbors’ yard. I was clueless about this moth until once again bugguide came to the rescue.

Hypocala andremona (4)
Hypocala andremona

Moth visitors not pictured: Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella), common bagworm (Psyche casta), and tent caterpillar (Malacosoma sp.). The Isabella tiger moth is the adult form of the classic “wooly bear” caterpillar.

12 Months of Nature: July

Marsh Wrens and Wildflowers

August is more than a third over, and here I am posting about July… I promise this trip happened on time, though. July’s outing took me to Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Kent County, MD. Eastern Neck is a gem encompassing an island at the mouth of the Chester River and a bit of land on the peninsula just to the north. It’s a bit out of the way but the payoff is worth the journey.

My trusty seasonal guide recommended this destination for both marsh wrens and wildflowers (specifically orchids and mallows). Before I move on, I have to admit that despite best efforts I neither saw nor heard a single marsh wren, nor did I spot any orchids. I had also hoped I might happen across a rail or two, and alas that was not to be. Yet I was not to be skunked! Mallows and other wildflowers were abundant. Even without the mallows this would have been a pleasurable enough trip, proving some cliché or other… maybe “it’s about the journey,” or some similar pithy sentiment.

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seashore mallow – mission accomplished!

In any event, before I hijack this post to speak of the best part of the trip, I should spend some time talking about the targets of my search. I still can’t add marsh wrens to my life list, although I’m not particularly disappointed by this. The time I spent exploring their habitat, occasionally playing their songs and calls from my phone, was quite rewarding. Amid the marshes and woodlands I picked out 35 bird species, including the yellow-billed cuckoo, which had been a bugaboo for a few months. Marsh wrens are fairly secretive and I anticipate plenty of opportunities to cross them off. I’m sitting at 155 species for 2017 with a goal of 162, and so I remain confident I can hit the target without this cute little bird.

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trumpet creeper

The summer wildflowers at Eastern Neck were quite a spectacle. Seashore mallow made this trip technically not a failure and the variety of other flowers helped make it a rousing success in the practical sense. Isolated common mullein plants rose like towers beside the trails, trumpet creeper blanked the sides of buildings, and joe-pye weed mixed with camphorweed and grasses in vast wavy fields. I spotted my personal favorite butterfly garden plant, partridge pea, as well as black-eyed Susan and Queen Anne’s lace here and there. That of course was just a small sampling of the abundant flowers coloring the landscape.

 

img_4762.jpgWhat was a good day for birding and a great day for wildflowers was an unparalleled day for butterflies. Seconds after I stepped from my car a spicebush swallowtail alit on the ground next to me. Soon thereafter a red admiral fluttered past, and on my first short hike common wood nymphs dotted the bushes. This was a trend that would continue without the day until I had encountered at least fifteen species, four of which were new additions to my life list and nine of which I managed to photograph. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that the refuge is home to the best butterfly garden I’ve ever seen (yes, including the one in spectacular, near-and-dear Brookside Gardens). This one was complete with solar panels, freshwater ponds, lillies, and an abundance of butterflies unlike any I’ve seen outside a conservatory. I can’t say anything else that will get across the beauty of the situation, so I will close with some of those photos.

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common wood nymph
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spicebush swallowtail
IMG_4734
a zebra swallowtail and a silver-spotted skipper atop joe-pye weed

January – Bald Eagles
February – Winter Beaches
March – Tundra Swans
April – Early Spring Wildflowers
May – Breeding Horseshoe Crabs
June – Breeding Bird Habitats

 

Climate Pledges

Five weeks ago, the United States withdrew from the Paris Agreement. I found this inexcusable, and so I chose to take action by re-committing to my own carbon cutting efforts and publicly documenting them. The general idea was to make one new pledge every week for as long as the US remains out of the accords, track my progress, and generate conversation. If I could bring a few others along with me, so much the better. This week’s pledge was to commit an entry in this space to the project, so here we are.

I will spare you the arguments about climate change being real and human-caused. They’ve been made elsewhere better than I possibly could and at this point the deniers are pretty much in “Flat Earth” territory. It’s real, it’s our fault, and I’m moving on to “what do we do about it?”

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I have found myself increasingly frustrated in recent months with regard to communication about important issues. I believe social media is an important platform for advocacy, but simply expressing one’s opinion using that platform is ineffective to the point of being self-defeating. So when I heard the news that the US had pulled the plug, I felt impotent. I wanted to shout into the echo chamber, share every article, chastise all the deniers, and comment on every post. In my fuming I hit upon a possible answer: do something, then talk about it. I knew I might not reach anyone who didn’t already agree with me, but I could still exchange knowledge and ideas with those who did. Maybe a few needed only a tiny nudge to make an adjustment or two of their own.

In order to make sure all my pledges were meaningful, I first thought about what I was already doing and disqualified those things from consideration. That increased the challenge, and it also means I haven’t yet touched on a lot of basics. Before I move on to the pledges so far, here are just a few ideas:

 

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Some of the lawn reduction in my yard.

My Pledges So Far

 

Pledge 1: Bike to work at least one day a week.

Reasoning: This one’s self-explanatory. Use less gas!

Status: My initial pledge was delayed getting started due to a busted-up bicycle and some weather issues, but it is officially underway. I’m behind but hoping to make up the missed days in July-August and stretch this as far into the Fall as possible.
Pledge 2: Eat no beef for 30 days.

Reasoning: Cattle ranching is extremely bad for the environment in a lot of ways, one of which being the high carbon footprint beef brings with it.

Status: Because Pledge 1 was behind, I opted to extend this to 45 days, allowing myself the exception for July 4th. So far I haven’t cheated once, outside of the one hot dog on my prearranged cheat day.


Pledge 3
: Turn off the water when soaping in the shower, and lower the temp.

Reasoning: Believe it or not, conserving water (especially hot water) lowers your carbon footprint too!

Status: I’m at about an 82% success rate in following this guideline.


Pledge 4
: Drink less coffee.

Reasoning: Coffee is another commodity with a high carbon footprint. My office uses a Keurig, which intensifies that problem.

Status: This is going a little more slowly than I intended, but I haven’t really cheated much or backslid. My consumption is down.


Pledge 5
: Commit to more fuel-efficient driving.

Reasoning: Use less gas.

Status: So far the gas light hasn’t come on, but I’ve only refueled once since making the pledge. The other things are hard to measure this early, so TBD.


Pledge 6
: Post about the pledges on my blog.

Reasoning: There’s a finite amount I can lower my own carbon footprint, but if my efforts spread to others that amount grows exponentially, like a pyramid scheme.

Status: If you’re reading this, mission accomplished! Remind me to hang a banner.

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Generic nature image to inspire conservationism!

Ancillary benefits to these pledges abound. Biking helps keep me in shape! Cutting beef is healthy! Taking quicker and cooler showers is god for my skin! Drinking less coffee is healthy, and makes me pee less, thus conserving water! Fuel-efficient driving saves money! Writing about it all teaches me I should use fewer exclamation points!

It’s starting to look like I will need a lot more ideas to keep this going for the duration of US non-membership in the Paris Agreement. I do have a few more thoughts, but please hit me up with yours! Leave ’em in the comments, email me, reply to the Facebook posts, DM me on Twitter, text me, beam ’em to me telepathically, send smoke signals, or do whatever you’ve gotta do. And of course, steal my idea – or let me know if you’ve been independently doing anything similar. I would be thrilled to hear about your own pledges I hope some will join me.

12 Months of Nature: June

Breeding Bird Habitats

This month’s entries in Seasonal Guide to the Natural Year were entirely devoted to breeding bird habitats, except for an afterthought section that can accurately be summarized as “well, I guess there’s other stuff in nature besides birds.” Incongruously, my birding really dropped off this month. I was busy early in June, and as my schedule cleared out so did many of the spring migratory birds. Much of this month’s outdoor time was dedicated to my butterfly garden and other landscaping projects.

IMG_4318
See?

All of that said, I did get around to a good sturdy birding trip this past weekend. The beauty of “breeding bird habitats” as a topic to explore is that it is equivalent to “outside somewhere” in this area. There are wrens nesting on my house, starlings nesting on my neighbor’s downspout, sparrows nesting on my office, etc. So, instead of following one of the specific locations outlined in the book I chose my own adventure and headed to a popular MoCo birding spot I hadn’t yet visited: the Blue Mash Nature Trail.

Before I go on, a quick aside about that name. Apparently it comes from a local pronunciation of “Marsh” which drops the ‘r. What is this, Boston? Anyway, it turns out that this is a pretty cool place. It’s a nature trail outside of a former landill (which is still private property). I don’t know that I would choose to eat anything foraged along the trail, but it was quite stunning to witness nature’s reclamation of the area.’

I did collect a pretty good checklist of birds on this hike, including two birding milestones. I added four new species to my year and life lists. The second, the field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) was the 200th entry on my life list. This was appropriate – field sparrow seemed to be a top 5 miss for me month after month. My simple mind is always gratified when nice round numbers line up with something significant in some other way. Speaking of which, the final bird of the day, an acadian flycatcher (Empidonax virescens) was my 150th for 2017. It was also the most common June bird for this area I hadn’t nabbed yet. That honor now belongs to the yellow-billed cuckoo. Other notables for the day included a scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea), a prairie warbler (Setophaga discolor), and several blue grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea). Unfortunately I only heard the tanager, but the distinctive call left me quite confident in the ID. The blue grosbeak is rapidly becoming my favorite bird, I think. They are so stunning and the fleeting glimpses so rewarding. All in all I was able to ID dozens of birds representing 33 species, with at least as many more individuals I was unable to pin down.

Alas, I am sans photos of the birds from my trip. This seems fitting, because for me this time of year it’s everything else that’s happening in the breeding bird habitats – the reasons the birds have chosen to breed there – that is really fantastic. Trees are in full foliage. Wildflowers are in bloom and insects are in flight. Reptiles and amphibians are active. Below are photos of just a few of these encountered on my hike. click on the thumbnails to expand (if you want – don’t let me tell you what to do!)

Aside from the Blue Mash hike and the few other birding walks I’ve managed to squeeze in this month I’ve been experiencing birds in their breeding habitats just about every day. They visit my feeders, pick bugs out of my butterfly garden and worms out of my lawn, and splash in my birdbath. Their songs are everywhere. Maybe the birds really are the exciting thing about June after all.

Prior Months of Nature

January – Bald Eagles
February – Winter Beaches
March – Tundra Swans
April – Early Spring Wildflowers
May – Breeding Horseshoe Crabs

 

12 Months of Nature: May

Breeding Horseshoe Crabs

May’s adventure marked a return to the same general location as my February trip, but with a different target in mind. This time I was making my way to the shores of the Delaware Bay to observe breeding horseshoe crabs and the related food web in action. On the surface, that may not sound like something worth a two-hour drive, but I was lured by a mental picture of a thick blanket of horseshoe crabs covering sandy beaches while shorebirds greedily feasted. After all, up until this trip I had almost exclusively seen horseshoe crabs singly or in small groups, and post-mortem. Their otherworldly appearance fascinates me. So, I took an extra vacation day I had in my pocket, rose early, and headed for the DuPont Nature Center and Slaughter Beach.

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scoped view of a black-bellied plover amid some dunlin

“Come for the crabs, stay for the shorebirds,” should be the tagline. I was a little early for the peak activity – my schedule would not permit otherwise – but still there was enough for me to understand why this phenomenon has an accompanying festival and generates quite a bit of naturalist buzz. The basics are that the Delaware Bay provides optimal conditions for horseshoe crabs to breed in late Spring, supporting more of the crabs than anywhere else. Migratory shorebirds, particularly red knots and ruddy turnstones, have in turn learned to exploit the predictability of this cycle, timing their Spring migration to include a stop on the Bay’s beaches on their northward journey. These birds are following a particularly long migratory path and thus arrive often near starvation and always in need of energy. Without this food source most would not be able to complete the trip.

IMG_3987
I obeyed the rules, though admittedly sometimes pushing them as far as these swallows.

My first stop was at the DuPont Nature Center, which is a renowned spot for viewing shorebirds. There was a birding group who arrived around the same time I did, and the leader was kind enough to point some birds out for me and include me as a sort of de-facto member. With her help and the aid of my scope, I was able to pick out dozens of dunlin, ruddy turnstones, sanderlings, and short-billed dowitchers. There were also a smattering of willets and semipalmated sandpipers and of course hundreds of “shorebird x” birds. What was a little surprising was an apparent shortage of red knots – the poster child for this whole thing. There were some, but not the numbers I’d expected. The Nature Center staff assured us they were around, though – they reported counting hundreds in a banding project just days before. Of course the shorebirds were not alone. laughing gulls, herring gulls, and common terns shared the beach and skies with them, as did several osprey and a small flock of barn swallows. Seemingly every post supported a double-crested cormorant. I spent about an hour and a half here and could tell this was going to be a successful day.

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A crab I thought was dead waves its appendages frantically to disabuse me of this notion.

Next up was Slaughter Beach. This was the spot where I expected not to be able to move without treading on horseshoe crabs. That would prove to be an unfounded assumption, but the crabs were abundant – living and deceased. Every few yards was a live crab, or a carapace, or a pile of discarded crab guts. Trails in the sand told the story of their journeys after being deposited ashore by the mild surf. The birds were far less plentiful here, and I got the impression that so were the crabs. The action seemed to mostly be taking place on sandbars and sheltered flats, as well as beachheads less accessible to the public. Still, I enjoyed every moment of the stroll and came upon some unexpected bonuses. For example, I was definitely not expecting the large numbers of purple martins swooping and diving over the sand. I also had to do a double-take at several skates swimming in the shallows, and at the eastern diamondback terrapins peering cautiously from the waters. At first I put the two together in my mind, thinking I was spotting sea turtles. I may have nerded out extensively before I figured out the truth… but this was OK, because I was fine with nerding out over the truth anyway.

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This particular terrapin was unlucky.

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Having already checked off the two big purposes for the trip, I still had a few hours to kill. So, recalling a great experience from a few months ago I returned to Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Once again this proved a rewarding choice. This was a second great opportunity to check off some shorebirds on my year and life lists, and included the highlight of the trip: a pair of American avocets. These were a first for me and are among the coolest-looking birds I have ever seen. The thin, upcurved bill, upright posture, and white stripe just makes them look so elegant.

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An American avocet

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Prior Months of Nature

January – Bald Eagles
February – Winter Beaches
March – Tundra Swans
April – Early Spring Wildflowers

Early Cicadas

Cicadas are confusing little buggers. Or bugs, if you like. “Large insects” if you want to be technical. When I was a kid, my understanding was that there were two kinds of cicada: annual and “seven-year.” False! I also thought the annuals lived their whole life cycle in a single year, whereas the seven-year variety hibernated underground for the years between emergences. False! I probably also thought a lot of other false things about cicadas, but those are the things I remember.

 

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Magicicada septendecim

Fortunately, biologists have this cicada thing on lock. Magicicada.org has a wealth of information on periodic cicadas (those of the genus Magicicada). There are seven known species of Magicicada, three of which have a seventeen-year life cycle and four of which have a thirteen-year life cycle. Most of a periodic cicada’s life is spent in its nymph stage, tunneling below the ground in search of food. The entire generation (locally) emerges at once to metamophose into its adult stage. The adults explode into several months of noisy mating then die as their progeny hatch and head back underground.

Scientists have grouped the emergences into “Broods,” each of which is designated with a Roman numeral and has a predictable 17 or 13 year cycle. Broods may comprise one or multiple species. Occasionally a brood of 17-year cicadas overlaps with a brood of 13-year cicadas for a completely bonkers display of insectery. There are also often “stragglers” appearing in the off years – the term is used to refer to both early and late individuals.

 

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The May 6 Evidence

Why am I talking about this now? The Washington, DC area is next due for a brood (Brood X) of Magicicadas (the 17-year kind) in 2021. Yet people in the area have been reporting sighting of Magicicada for the past few weeks. I photograpphed one on 5/6 but assumed it was an annual cicada. Laurel asked me a few days later why we were seeing so many, and I assumed it was just a good year for the various annual species. Then I saw a couple of articles about it, and on 5/18 I counted over a hundred individuals in my backyard over about fifteen minutes. It seems there are quite a lot of stragglers, and a full four years early.

A brief aside about those annual cicadas: First, these aren’t a single species either but many species distributed among several genera. I think the most common, or at least the most reliably identified, is sometimes called the “dog day” cicada, Neotibicen tibicen. Anyway, it is not a one-year lifespan that makes these species “annual.” These cicadas also live several years, mostly as nymphs. The difference is that the ages of individuals are staggered – they do not all reach adulthood in the same year and therefore are not all on the same breeding clock. This is an enormous distinction and serves to illustrate just how odd the breeding of periodic cicadas is. Can you imagine if every adult human produced offsprinng once every seventeen years and never in between? Picture the media frenzy each cycle in the months leading up to “sex year.”

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Back to the periodics. What is going on here? Is the whole brood going to emerge this year, or just an unusually high and concentrated group of stragglers? Are all three species part of this phenomenon? If it is the whole brood, is the cycle just going to advance for four years in perpetuity? Will the next one overcompensate and last 21 years? Is Brood X about to switch from a 17 to a 13 year cycle? For all of these questions, add: why?

Is it Climate Change? I have seen this assertion many times already, and I’m not sure how well it stacks up. I can’t imagine the trigger to emerge after 17 years is temperature, but Climate Change is must more complex than just rising temperatures. It would be emotionally satisfying to have one more example of the chaos wrought by Climate Change, but for this very reason I am unwilling to assume it is the case and accept the easy answer.I’ll be fascinated to see what cause entomologists do attribute this too (I bet it’s not chemtrails or GMOs, WINK) and how they go about figuring it out.

YOU can help the entomologists get there by reporting sightings here. It’s a remarkably easy online mechanism that only takes a few minutes, and every data point is helpful. So if you see cicadas with big red eyes consider doing your part.