Thursday, September 4, 2008

Broadening Horizons in the World of Nature

So.... What does a birder do when it's an "in-between-birds" season? Such is summer in Illinois. Oh, backyards will have a few molting cardinals, straggler orioles and lots of plain finches; there might be some interesting Gull activity on the Lakefront; and a paddle down the river will give us looks at plenty of herons, egrets, cormorants and kingfishers, but our walks in the parks and preserves will be almost devoid of exciting birds during July and August. A birder must diversify!

An "in-between-seasons" goldfinch ...

Many birders, and I'm no exception, have discovered other things with wings which will keep them occupied until the Peeps and Warblers flock in during September , and the Migratory ducks begin to make their way a little later on in the Fall. It is then that serious birding resumes!

One of the "Peeps" a Greater Yellowlegs

Butterflies have long been a natural attraction to birdwatchers and bird photographers. They have many of the same characteristics that draw us to birds...colorful, intricate markings, rather predictable, fascinating to watch, and if you're patient, relatively easy to photograph. They are conveniently in abundance during July and August.

Painted Lady on Joe Pye Weed

Dragonflies have caught the attention of some birders the past few years, especially those who enjoy the difficult-to-pronounce scientific names and discerning the subtle distinctions between some of the varieties seen here in Illinois. They call themselves aspiring Odonatologists.
If you can catch dragonflies in between egg-laying sessions, they are fun to watch posing for photographs. Otherwise they are usually too busy trying to mate to be still enough.

A 12-spot Dragonfly

A big interest this year seems to be BUGS, and in particular the Cicada Killer Wasp. Last year we experienced the 17 year Cicadas onslaught, and this year the Cicada Killer Wasp is taking center stage. I was highly intrigued by this species' life cycle and was fascinated watching their behavior. First the nearly 2" long female Wasp diligently and methodically digs a path and a deep hole in a sandy area. In this case it was on a sand volleyball court! There were dozens of these insects swarming around and working their tunnels and they all seemed oblivious to my presence.
Next the Wasp finds her cicada prey, stings it to kill it, and then brings it to the nest. The process of entangling her legs into the dead cicada's body to straddle it so she can "carry" it, is just fascinating. The Wasp drags the cicada uphill and then drops it into the 6-10" deep hole. According to research, the Wasp lays her egg on the Cicada, then the larvae over-winters in the nest, sustained by the Cicada and emerges the following summer.
A more complete synopsis of the life cycle of the Cicada Killer Wasp can be found here:

Here are some photographs of the Cicada Killer Wasp in action on the
volleyball court in So. Barrington, IL
Here the Cicada Killer Wasp digging it's nest hole by burrowing down and then kicking sand back, repeatedly. I watched one do this for about 15 minutes before it flew off.

Here a Cicada Killer Wasp is attempting to straddle the cicada's underside. This takes some time, as she actually weaves her legs thru the body of the cicada. It was fascinating to watch this part in particular. Look closely, she seems to be grimacing.

Now firmly attached to the cicada, she starts the climb up the sand mound which leads to the path toward her nest

Climbing (and hoisting) higher...
...and higher

And finally she flies out of the nest, having dropped the Cicada in!

A new generation of bugs will emerge next July-August!