Sunday, August 24, 2008

Birds and Butterflies of the Chattahoochee Hill Country: Part Two

On Saturday, August 16th, a group of us met at Hill Country Montessori School for our monthly Sense of Place Outing. We were bleary-eyed and clutching cups of coffee, because it was only 7 in the morning. (Ironically, the early start time was intended so that we would enhance the likelihood of seeing a variety of birds. Yet, apart from a brief glimpse of a couple of great crested flycatchers (Tara identified them -- I saw only a blur of movement.), we saw practically no birds during the entire outing. We heard quite a few, including a number of catbirds, and we also briefly glimpsed a ruby-throated hummingbird sipping nectar from a flower on the other side of Cedar Creek. But otherwise, our trip would be a trove of insects. Tara's consolation prize, though, was a number of insects that took rides on her shirt throughout the morning, including a dragonfly that stayed with her for an hour, and a butterfly that landed on her shoulder toward the end of the morning.)

We caravanned to Dunaway Gardens just south of the Fulton County Line in Coweta County, where the gate was opened for our entourage to enter. The gardens, otherwise closed for the weekend, were opened just for our group. Throughout our visit, we relished the experience of being on our own in the gardens, in contrast to our visit earlier this year, when our trip coincided with several large garden tours and an afternoon wedding. Garden maps in hand, we hurried downslope to the edge of Cedar Creek. Although the path was well-mowed, my feet were still quickly drenched by the early morning dew.

Gosh, did we see a lot of insects, though! Greg, sporting an insect net, was full of glee, snatching up all sorts of treasures in his net. It was still cool enough in the early morning that the dragonflies were motionless atop plant stems, and an easy catch. The first one we found, a slaty skimmer, is pictured below. This is the dragonfly that subsequently befriended Tara for much of our morning.

A few minutes later, Greg was using his net to try to catch some aquatic denizens of a small pond adjacent to the creek. He quickly found a water scorpion -- an insect belonging to the order Hempitera, or the "true bugs". Related to the terrestrial "walking stick" insect, water scorpions are air-breathing predators that feed on smaller insects, such as mayfly and stonefly nymphs.

In another few minutes, Greg had located a "tent" belonging to a cluster of tent caterpillars in a shrub along the streambank. Based upon their size, the larvae appeared to be almost ready to pupate, emerging afterwards as small, reddish-brown moths.

Continuing along the riverbank, we saw another dragonfly, perched calmly on a blade of grass. I snapped its photo before it flew away.

We continued along the creek's edge, stopping to scan the far bank for birds, but to no avail.

The prize find of the day, in my opinion, was a sleek green tree frog that I noticed on a cattail reed, blending in almost perfectly with the stalk. A moment later, a green dragonfly (possibly a pond hawk) landed on a nearby reed and perched there for a group photo.

I returned to the site a few minutes later, and the dragonfly had flown away. I did get a splendid closeup of the green tree frog, though, who remained motionless there, against the backdrop of Cedar Creek.

At last we wended our way up through the gardens, finding quite a few butterflies but only a couple of birds. We heard a woodpecker's call through the trees, and briefly saw a cardinal who scolded us from a shrub along the path. Tara, Greg, Valerie and I inspected another set of shallow ponds (Arrowhead Pools) that had been constructed as part of the gardens. Tara found an intact snakeskin in the shallows, but the birds (including a heron known to haunt the area, feeding on the pond's goldfish stock) continued to elude us.

Chattahoochee Hill Country Birds and Butterflies: Part One

On Thursday, August 7th, eight participants joined us for overviews of the birds and winged insects (butterflies and dragonflies/damselflies) of the Chattahoochee Hill Country area. Tara Mostowy, biology graduate student at the University of West Georgia, began with a splendid overview of bird identification. She then shared with us both photographs and brief descriptions of the range of local birds we might see on our trip to Cedar Creek wetlands, later in August.

After her talk, Dr. Greg Payne, entomologist at the University of West Georgia, walked us through an array of butterflies and dragonflies. In a marvelous conjunction of terms, our entomologist speaker also regaled us with extensive etymological information about the origins of many of the complicated terms used for classifying insects.

Not visible in the photograph above, off to the right, was a row of tables full of fascinating bits of natural history. Greg brought in wood and glass boxes full of mounted insect specimens, several dissecting microscopes, and a number of live caterpillars. I couldn't wait to see some of the mounted butterflies in flight on our Saturday outing!

Turtles and Toads of the Chattahoochee Hill Country: Part Two

Twenty people joined us for our Saturday "Turtles and Toads" outing, including a dozen children, mostly age six through twelve. We all met up at Cochran Mill Nature Center at 9:30 am on Saturday, July 19th. Valerie Hayes began the day with an abbreviated reprise of her overview of local frogs, toads, and turtles. After her talk, Rick gave participants a chance to explore the herp collection at Cochran Mill Nature Center, including bringing out a snake that we could touch.

As we set out to look for local herps, I admit to feeling skeptical that, with such a large lively group of participants, we would actually find any. But all it took was some fish food sprinkled on the water of the small pond outside the nature center building, and first the catfish showed up for a feeding frenzy...

...and then a couple of slider turtles arrived to claim the bits of food that landed on the mud at the pond's edge. After having our fill of catfish and slider turtles, we left the lovely new deck area around the pond, and began turning over nearby logs and stones. One of the children found an Eastern fence lizard, which lost the end of its tail while being captured by a young participant. (The tail will grow back over time; lizards "drop" their tails as a means of distracting predators, giving them a chance to escape while their abandoned tail continues to wiggle.)

We continued up the hill, off a trail and into the woods. Chigger Country, I was later to discover. Several participants, including myself, ended up with an unintended memento of our trip: a vast number of chigger bites around the ankles. The wooded area had many large rocks, but few creatures living under them, apart from the occasional ant colony. We returned to a grassy area near the nature center building, to visit with the resident sulcata tortoise. We gathered around his enclosure to watch him chowing down on various vegetables. Then we disbanded -- it was practically noon, and I had a long week of chigger-bite-scratching ahead of me....

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Turtles and Toads of the Chattahoochee Hill Country: Part One

On Thursday, July 10th 2008, Rick McCarthy ("Reptile Rick") and Valerie Hayes gave a presentation on "Turtles and Toads" -- a shortcut for herps ( a word that refers to both amphibians and reptiles). Rick (on the left) gave a splendid talk about snakes and lizards in the area; Valerie followed with a fascinating look at local frogs and toads (complete with recordings of their calls) as well as (of course!) turtles....

The talks were highly informative, and Rick also brought several caged live snakes (venomous and nonvenomous) found in the Hill Country. Attendance was light, but the four participants who joined us indicated that they enjoyed the presentations very much. Both speakers gave their talks again a few weeks later, during Snake Day festivities at Cochran Mill Nature Center(Saturday, August 23rd).