Identify Unknowns With An App

In my twenties I worked as a naturalist at three county parks in New York State. I would lead nature hikes for visitors on the park trails. All ages of visitors would join me. While NYS ferns were my forte, we could never overlook the colorful wildflowers, slowly creeping slugs and snails, various mushrooms and fungi after a rain, or any flying bird or insect. As a result I was always studying my field guides or asking another naturalist to identify something for me.

We have come a long way….

Fifty years later, we have technology to thank with helping us to identify critters and plants we may have no idea of what they are. An app, iNaturalist, provides me with a way to include my photo of a living plant or animal, location and date. Then it suggests what I am trying to identify. After reading through the choices, I choose what the plant or animal may be. Once I share my observation, other individuals provide input to help identify my finding. They may not always agree with me and that is okay. I see their choice and can agree if I do agree.

Could you identify this wildlife?

With the help of the iNaturalist app and others who agree to my identification of each, here are some for you to see if you already know what they are or would need an app to help:

You know it is a dragonfly…specifically it is a blue dasher.
You know it is a cicada….specifically it is a scrub cicada.
You know it is a toad…specifically a red-spotted toad.

There are other apps available to help identify animals and plants. Give them a try!

Great Blue Heron in Flight!

Quite unexpectedly I was in the right location … meaning light … to capture photographs of a great blue heron before it flew off, as it flew by and then landed.

Heron was hot and trying to cool own.

It was a very hot day and the bird was by a water’s edge and then flew! Quickly I snapped a series of photos as the great blue heron flew past me.

Wow, beautiful wings!
Bird takes off…
Bird passing me…
Where is the bird headed?
Heron lands in a nearby pond to cool off!

Spectacular to see the bird so close to me and with an opportunity to take many photos. It was a hot day so I know it enjoyed the water and I enjoyed watching the bird. Fun fact: Although the great blue heron stands 4 feet tall and is the largest North American heron species, it only weighs 5 to 6 pounds. Why? Just like most birds, they have light, hollow bones! Some days I wish I did too!

Turtles and 104 degrees!

I needed to stretch my legs even if it meant walking a mile in a very hot temperature … 104 degrees! I am not sure where the day went, so I headed to Agua Caliente Park in Tucson Arizona for the walk and wondered if any wildlife were moving around? Ten different bird species were flitting around, deep in the tree leaves … they were smart to be in any shade! The turtles however were hanging around on land, in the water, and on a rock … a real balancing act!

Turtles can tolerate warm conditions, but there are concerns as to whether they can handle climate change especially if temperatures rise too quickly. We need to be sure not to destroy their habitat as they need water, land, light and air with rainfall helping to moderate temperatures, provide water and maintain a wetland. People who have red-eared sliders as a common pet turtle know to keep a constant 85 – 92 degrees Fahrenheit temperature, along with a rock in watering area for it to sit on sand. They can live up to 75 years if cared for correctly.

The semi-aquatic pond sliders I saw on this walk, called red-eared sliders, were in different locations at the park. Enjoy the photos of them:

Turtle comfortable on a log
This turtle enjoying a swim
These two heading somewhere on land. I did not hang around to watch them … too hot!
Ready for a swim or not?

Common Gallinule … A “Common” Bird?

When you say that’s a common bird, I think common raven, common grackle, common loon, or common yellowthroat. Or simply a common bird in my neighborhood: Greater roadrunner, lesser goldfinch or house finch. So it is interesting to me when the name of a bird includes the word “common”. I am sure not to think of a common gallinule! 

In some areas the more common rail species is the American coot with its white frontal shield … they are common here. However, recently I could not miss seeing a Common gallinule with its bright red frontal shield. Look at this bird pictured in the photo below!

Common gallinule

A common gallinule loves the well-vegetated wetland, such as in our Sweetwater Wetland area in Tucson, Arizona. I love seeing this bird which is truly not common for me to see. I have to catch sight of this bird on land and look for its yellow legs! Some day … and in the meantime, I’ll enjoy what birds I do see! I hope you are outdoors, enjoying the air and water with birds too!

The food this bird loves from a wetland.

How Herons Cool Off, Really?!

Birds have no sweat glands, but need to regulate their body temperature like you and I on a hot day. The other day I saw a great blue heron in a wooded area by a pond’s edge, yet could not get a photo so I walked the trail and looped back 50 minutes later to see if the bird emerged. It did!

The great blue heron had its wings open to catch a breeze. I could understand the need to cool off in the almost 100 degree air temperature, but I actually had never seen a bird doing this behavior. The bird held his wings open for 8 minutes.

A cooling technique.

Then the heron closed its wings and opened its mouth as shown in this photo:

Heron trying to cool itself this way.

Birds open their wings to circulate air to their hot skin and lower body temperature. Passerines or perching birds will pant to lose heat through their respiratory system, but a great blue heron is not a passerine. It will lose heat through a rapid vibration of their upper throat and thin floor of their mouth. I was across the pond from the bird; however, I could see the bird’s throat vibrating. Eleven minutes later the bird had its wings and mouth open.

Bird really wants to cool down, wings and mouth open, throat vibrating.

This bird was working hard to cool off. It had been a half hour observing this bird, so this was the last photo I took … I needed to cool down my own body too. Fun fact I learned while researching birds cooling themselves: turkey vultures urinate on their legs to capitalize on evaporative cooling … what? really?, wow! Isn’t it fun to learn something new everyday?

Still cooling down… it’s been a hot day!

Wildlife Surprise … Not a Bird!

My eyes are scanning … up, down, across … bushes and trees, the water’s surface while also wondering if a water bird will pop up through the surface and dive again, observing the ground and thinking the birds may not be enjoying the light rain that is currently falling … I too would fluff up and tuck away if I could! 

I am at Ithaca’s Stewart Park, located at the southern end of New York State’s largest Finger Lake, Cayuga Lake. It’s a beautiful park with plenty of human activity when the weather cooperates. Some 10 -12 brave souls are learning and practicing sailing techniques in their sailboats, a couple of hearty fishermen are hoping to catch something and I am sitting in my van with the window open, camera and binoculars ready, and all of a sudden I notice something!

What is that drowned rat-looking creature? I think to myself, that animal is too large to be a weasel or a rat, I am guessing a mink. Thanks to the app, iNaturalist, I include a photo and the necessary info about time, date and location of my observation for others to agree or disagree with my identification. Here the American mink is running by:

American mink sniffing around…
And then it was running off!

I was surprised to see the mink since they are usually nocturnal, but the gray rainy weather may be throwing us all off kilter. The mink’s thick brown coat appeared to be soaking wet, possibly from just being in the water. Mink are known to rely on aquatic prey so it may be the reason it was active during the daytime. I like seeing other wildlife. My outdoor time is not only about birds, but observing the web of life firsthand … yet I do worry about its future… in this moment though, time to enjoy this critter as it will be gone in a flash! And so it was!

Sparrows … Who Knew?

Sparrows are the most abundant bird flying around in the world … 1.6 billion of them! Recently I discovered there are 48 sparrow species in the United States, along with an interesting fact: juncos and towhees are sparrows! Most often I see white-crowned sparrows, but my walk at Saguaro National Park East, in Arizona, allowed me an opportunity to see rufous-winged and black-throated sparrows.

I heard a bird singing so I quietly moved into the area, then I saw a rufous-winged sparrow singing! This species of sparrows was discovered in 1872 in Tucson, common into the 1880’s and then disappeared. Since the 1930’s the species has gradually increased.

Rufous-winged sparrow singing – notice rufous on wing too.
Rufous-winged sparrow

My favorite sparrow is the handsome black-throated sparrow, also referred to as the “desert sparrow”. This bird population declines where there’s increasing development; it does not adapt well in suburbs. I love the look of this bird and hope it remains at our desert.

Black-throated sparrow
Black-throated sparrow

As the number of housing developments increase near Saguaro National Park, birds are in greater need of places to live. They may migrate further north at times or even south, but do have a need for this area too. Let’s be sure to continue to keep it available for them and also for us who enjoy hiking the trails.

Some May Call Me Crazy!

My goal wherever I travel is to see as much as I can since I never  know when I will return! Birdwatching is a challenge since I cannot always be where they are when they are migrating for an easier time to bird watch, but they are here each day! With patience I will see them even as I move through 3 states in this one day: South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska!

Today’s temperature rose from a morning 65 to midday 93 degrees; feeling like 103 degrees. Before leaving the area the next day, I had three places to visit. I camped in North Sioux City, South Dakota, a couple of miles from Adams Homestead and Nature Preserve. I spent a few hours at the homestead and loved it. I walked more than a mile on their trails and stood behind 2 wildlife blinds to ultimately observe 21 different species of birds and 4 deer, yet no sign of the red-headed woodpecker, darn! This 1500 acre property includes the family’s homestead and other buildings. Many of the trails you can also bicycle ride with hybrid tires being the best for the trail. Plenty of history here. Stephen Searls Adams in 1872 purchased Civil War soldiers’ homesteading rights through the Homestead Act. It was 120 years later, 1984, when his granddaughters donated the 1500 acres to the state of South Dakota. They wanted this place to be “a place for inner renewal”. 

I watched three great blue herons for a period of time. I thought the crouch of one was to be intimidating or to attract a female, yet it seemed there a was way to protect ones territory. Adams Homestead and Nature Preserve is a place worth visiting. Here are photos from this place:

Next I drove across the Missouri River to Iowa. I visited Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center. What beautiful indoor exhibits and also a “Bird of Prey” outdoor exhibit with a barred owl and red-tailed hawk, each in their own area, both unfortunately permanently injured. The three miles of hiking trails wind through forest and prairie areas and connect with Stone State Park trails. I loved seeing the tree fort and rock climbing area for children. There are also nature programs for children with trained naturalists. I walked the Whitetail Ridge Trail and did observe birds. Photos from here:

Next stop was Dairy Queen! I needed to sit in an air-conditioned area and have a “Blizzard”. No amount of water was keeping me cool, yet I knew I must keep hydrated and why not cool my innards!?

After starting in South Dakota, then to Iowa, I was now visiting Crystal Cove Park in Nebraska. Not much was happening at this park …. temperatures were over 100 degrees so that was understandable. I did talk with a couple of people who found it necessary to get their run in!?!?! I also talked about traveling to the 3 different states in such close proximity to each for gasoline, medical appointments, etc and they all agreed it does get tricky at times. My 3 visits were all less than 7 miles from each other and in three different states. Interesting!

I was exhausted, but had a good day and then a wonderful shower, but the black flies attacked my feet! I have so many bites and they itch unbelievably! After Bite is not helping! Never had this experience before and not enjoying it! Insects may rule the world in the future; horrible thought right now!

Retzer Nature Center … in Wisconsin

Thanks again to people bequeathing their land! In 1938 this land was once the 90 acre home of John and Florence Retzer who restored the land with over 26,000 trees, flowers and shrubs. In 1973 it was given to the Waukesha County “to conserve the scenery, natural life and wildlife, leaving the land unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations”. In 1974, plans to develop a nature center began and in the 1980’s the site expanded to 335 acres. I walked the trails under gray skies, but no rain, and really enjoyed the area. It is a place to return to and for anyone with children wanting an environmental education experience. I saw 16 different species of birds and photographed some despite it not being the best light for photography.

After hours of hiking at the center, I stopped at a laundromat to wash and dry cotton towels, eat a bratwurst at the Elegant Farmer, known for apple pie baked in a paper bag, before heading back to the campground. I needed to organize everything in my car since it was easiest to do when it is not raining. All things need to be in their place for ease in finding them. At times I think I packed to much, but then again it could have been colder and I would have needed the heavier clothing layers! Just as I had wondered if the silk liner for my sleeping bag was necessary, I discovered it was best to use it alone in the heat at night when sleeping. Glad I packed it!

In June 2020 I had hoped to bicycle ride and camp north of Madison Wisconsin. Unfortunately the Covid-19 pandemic thwarted that travel plan! But I am now realizing this area around Milwaukee has wonderful places to visit too. I may be back some day!

Here are some photos:

Wehr Nature Center & Squeaky Cheese

Rain to arrive by 8am so I am up, eating my breakfast quickly so I can drive to Franklin, WI to visit Wehr Nature Center. Fortunately the weather cooperated for my visit there!

I saw plenty of birds and was mosquito bitten despite being slathered with Deet for insect and tick protection! This nature center is really impressive and worth a visit if you are in the area.

Today’s photos:

I stopped to buy cheese curd, ate and loved all that I did eat, but wondered why it is squeaky when eaten fresh? Now I know. The elastic protein strands of the fresh cheese rub against the enamel of our teeth to create the sound … and now you know too!