Natural Observations–6-17-2012


Photos by Robin Song: Wilson’s warbler in May Day tree, crab spider, Lincoln’s sparrow, Lyra, gray jay with bumblebee, trumpeter swans


Earth and Beyond host and producer Robin Song finds some sunshine in the first half of June, and, as always, some interesting observations of the natural world in the northern Susitna Valley. Audio runs 8 min 40 sec. Text follows.

[audio:|titles=NatObsSoggy June 0617,18,2012]


Waking up and discovering yet another day of rain starting is a bit daunting to my spirit. Moisture can be disastrous to sensitive digital cameras, so my photo ops have been very limited so far this summer.

On June 5th and 6th we had what has become rare sunny weather. The May Day tree was in bloom in front of the cabin and full of insects and birds. I was working at the greenhouses, and in between folks coming to buy flowers, I grabbed the camera and stood in front of the tree, watching the activity. A few surprises rewarded my observations. A tiny male Ruby-crowned Kinglet suddenly flew from the nearby forest in amongst the branches of the May Day (or False Chokecherry) tree. It was searching for insects, and flitted from branch to branch, bending low, looking up under leaves to pick off tiny insects. Photographing this bird took a lot of patience, for it was in constant motion. Finally it appeared briefly at the crown of the tree where I was able to get a clear view for a moment or two before it flew off into the forest once more.


A few moments later a flash of yellow caught my eye. To my great joy, I spotted a male Wilson’s Warbler arriving to also hunt insects in the tree. The brilliant yellow bird amongst the masses of small white blooms, with the bright blue sky as a backdrop, was breath taking. If I thought getting photos of the kinglet was difficult, this bird truly took all my skills to capture it with the camera. It moved incessantly and its tiny form was well-hidden by the clumps of blooms. Only once did it appear in a clear area, and I was ready with the camera, having circled the tree several times, following the movements of the quick little bird. I was pleased that the camera co-operated and I actually got a focused shot. Often the quick movements of birds give me fuzzy photos. I am always envious of the spectacular, sharp and close-up photos I see in birding magazines.


The Wilson’s didn’t stay long, though it did return to the May Day tree three times. It didn’t give me any more clear shots, however and disappeared completely when it returned to the forest. I could hear it’s buzzy call, but could not see it. For a bright yellow bird, it can sure vanish amongst lime-green birch leaves.


My heart rate returned to normal after the kinglet and Wilson’s photo session, and I stood watching the tree, hoping for more surprises. An adult Grey Jay landed on a branch mid way up the tree. Any bird looks lovely amongst the masses of white blooms, and I focused the camera on the jay. I noticed it searching under leaves for insects. To my surprise, it neatly picked what I thought was bumblebee from a bloom near it. Zooming in on the photo, I was astonished to see that it had actually nabbed a yellow jacket wasp! It held it with a foot, pinning it to the branch, and ripped it apart, neatly eating it in a couple of gulps. A few moments later the bird crouched and held still, like a tiger in waiting. A large bumblebee buzzed nearer and then the bird struck, grabbing it on the wing. Again it stood on the insect, ripped it apart and ate it in a couple of quick motions. I knew ravens would eat wasps, but this was my first sighting of a Grey Jay eating stinging insects.


I had been in a canoe one summer day a few years ago and had heard ravens raising a ruckus from the shoreline. I had my video camera with me and paddled over to see what they were up to. I found two adult ravens attacking a large wasp nest, diving at it repeatedly until they had knocked it from the branch to which it had been attached. Once it hit the ground, the ravens were on it, tearing into the paper-like gray ball. They got in to the interior and tore out sections of larvae combs. Then, followed by wasps, they carried these in their beaks to a nearby spruce crown, where sat their three offspring, calling loudly. I filmed the parents feeding the larvae to their young. They must have been getting stung in their mouths, for after they had transferred the larvae to the youngsters, the adults sat next to them, heads back, beaks open wide, and eyes shut tight. When the pain had subsided sufficiently, they returned to the nest to retrieve more larvae for their clamoring young. There was the picture of stoic parenting, if ever I saw it.


After returning to the greenhouse, once the Grey Jay had moved on (full of bees and wasps!) I found another surprise- a new kind of Crab Spider. The tiny arachnid was crawling along the leaf edge of a begonia. Its bright yellow color caught my attention. I brought the plant outside to have a better look. The spider had red markings on its yellow back, and its first four legs were deep black. I knew it was in the Crab Spider family, for when it suspected there might be a possible predator nearby, it clamped its four front legs together and held them out, looking like the pincher claws on a crab- hence its name. Knowing it would fare better out in the forest, I carried its leaf to a birch and transferred the spider to a safer environment. I have seen a few Crab Spiders in recent years, but this was the first one I had seen, with these particular colors and markings.


The sun was shining on the evening of the 5th, and after I got off work I drove to Fish Lake to take the photographic opportunity, for I knew we were in for another bout of rainy weather. Lyra in her spot-standing on the front seat of the canoe- we set off. The lake was blessedly calm, the water like glass. Two pairs of Common Loons dove for food, watching our slow passing. Bonaparte’s Gulls circled overhead and Arctic Terns hovered and dove into the dark water as I paddled us along the north shoreline. As we neared the marsh on the east end, a beaver swam near an island where its lodge has stood for many years. A kingfisher called from its perch on a spruce jutting out over the water. Paddling into the marsh I heard a songster singing from its perch on a bush rising above the surrounding marsh grass. The little Lincoln’s sparrow sang as the evening sun lit its handsome markings. I knew its wife sat on their eggs somewhere nearby, listening to the singing, too.


I spotted a pair of Trumpeter Swans in the maze of marsh islands, coming out from the brush along Birch Creek. I put the paddle across my knees and let the canoe drift slowly up against a small grassy island, watching the regal birds through the cameras’ telephoto lens. Once they became sure that I was not a predator, they began to preen and perform ‘tip-ups’, plucking aquatic plants from beneath the water surface. I stayed awhile, Lyra curling up to take a nap on the canoe’s cushion. I alternated watching the swans, the sparrow, and an adult bald eagle preening atop a spruce along the creek. It was peaceful, sitting there on the still water, observing the gifts of Nature all around me. All too soon, it was time for me to begin the long trek back across the lake. As I neared the entrance to the lake once again, I heard a noise and turned to see the male swan running across the water, taking flight. It flew past me, lit up by the evening light. It took my breath away as I watched its flight and landing out in the lake. Its mate retreated back into the marsh, no doubt where they had a nest hidden.


The swan headed to the north side of the lake while I paddled back along the south side. I mentally thanked it for allowing me to observe it and its mate on that quiet night. The loons escorted me part way back across the lake before continuing with their hunt for food.


As the rain settles in once again, I think back to that golden evening on the lake and wonder if the rarity of sunny days makes the memory even sweeter.      Leaves have taken the place of the fragrant blooms on the May Day tree now, and the birds I see are soggy and a bit bedraggled-looking. Robins shake the drops off their heads as they hop across the grass in front of the cabin, searching for worms for their nestlings. I heard the soft cheeps of swallow hatchlings greet their mother as she entered their nestbox on the front of the cabin on June 10th. Snipes winnow overhead as they dive through the falling rain, and songbirds call from the trees while woodpeckers drill on wet tree trunks. The rain is just part of life, to the wild ones. They show me how to take it in stride, with a grace far better than mine. Maybe the sun will shine in July. Here’s hoping.


KTNA story, for 06-17,18, 2012 by Robin Song

Soggy June




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