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.

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