On Saturday, August 27th, Wake Audubon and the Museum of Natural Sciences co-sponsored a workshop to learn some of the finer points of bird identifications for a variety of challenging species. Twelve folks ventured out and into the murky world of “little brown jobs” which actually included some big brown “jobs” and a few other types added for good measure.
Three of most active Young Naturalists provided tremendous support (one is a former Museum Junior Curator who has been affiliated with the YNC program the past 2 years). These 3 helped to pull ~75 bird specimens from the Museum’s ornithology collections, to represent some of the more challenging plumages of species found in North Carolina, and often in Wake County. These included various species of warblers (fall, immature plumages), sparrows, raptors (“all immature raptors seem to be brown on the back and streaked underneath”….), and some of the finch/bunting types. There were others and as the saying goes, you just had to be there.
Specimens were arranged on tabletops in their respective groups, and John Gerwin and the 3 assistants held court at the resulting tables, where they could go over each specimen/species and compare and contrast with others that look so much alike.
Olivia and Vanessa Merritt, and Edward Landi, have assisted John with numerous bird banding events over the past 3 years, which includes 4 projects. They have spent many hours handling live sparrows, buntings and warblers in the Fall at both Prairie Ridge and a grassland/shrub site in the Uwharries, as part of ongoing bird banding studies at each site. They also assist with tasks in the Museum’s ornithology collections. So these three have gained quite a bit of experience with these more challenging species (some of our other Young Naturalists have been participating as well but were unavailable to help on Saturday).
In addition to the specimens, John showed a few dozen images of the species of interest, during which time we were able to discuss the field marks, and see how things might look through optics (versus a specimen in your hand!). This gave folks a chance to guess at identifications, which is always a combination of fun and internal strife!
By the end, we were all sufficiently overwhelmed by the many shades of browns, grays, olive greens, but we agreed that in spite of their more “quiet” look, they are really quite lovely once you see them up close the way we did.
Attached are a few of the species we covered – click on the image to enlarge it. See which ones you can ID (then look at the end of the blog for the answers).
John Gerwin, Treasurer, Wake Audubon and Research Curator, Ornithology, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
Upper left: Palm, western subspecies
Upper right: Cape May, female
Lower left: Blackpoll
Lower middle: “Yellow”, or Eastern Palm
Lower right: Prairie
Lower left: Cooper’s, immature female
Upper middle: Sharp-shinned, adult
Upper right, Sharp-shinned, immature
Lower right: Cooper’s, adult on Starling
Right: White-crowned, immature
Ammodramus: this slide shows the underside of the two species of what were once considered one: Sharp-tailed Sparrow. Now known as: Nelson’s, and Saltmarsh, sparrow. The specimen labels reflect this current taxonomy.
Authored by John Gerwin
I went outside this week, on a couple afternoons, to check out the butterflies. A number of butterfly-attracting plants are now blooming nicely (New York Ironweed, Cup Plant, Smooth Oxeye, Green-headed Sneezeweed/Coneflower, Summer Phlox). And, as I’d expected/hoped, a number of Skipper butterflies have now appeared to feed at these flowers (I saw 4 Skipper species that day, in an hour of looking around).
The Skipper group of butterflies is a large, worldwide group. The common name derives from the flight of many of them, a flight during which they “skip” through the air. Species in this group have some of the strongest flight muscles and are some of the fastest flying Lepidoptera – they bounce erratically through the air, and are often tough to visually follow. Indeed, they appear to come and go in a flash. And some are territorial, so they attack anything that walks or flies by – anything.
In addition, as a group, Skippers are known as dull, drab, difficult to identify butterflies. Even when graced with some spots/blotches, there can be several species whose spots are so similar that they are still tough to ID. Many show sexual dimorphism (males and females look different) – so different you’d think they are two species. And to make matters more fun, the sex of one might look like one of the others. They are, in essence, the “sparrows, or gulls, of the butterfly world”. Few people subject themselves to what can be a torturous experience – identifying a Skipper.
But, there are in fact a number of species who are quite wonderfully marked, and/or show some fine coloration. So, to those trying to learn some new species out there, I say take a look for, and at, these more elaborately colored species. As always, I encourage anyone to go along with a simple point and shoot camera and take plenty of shots. You can then go home and put a name to your butterflies later (or you can ask some of us on this list).
For now, let me show case a few that I see in the yard, or nearby in some neighbor’s yard.
Zabulon, Clouded, Fiery Skippers
One of the brightest skippers I see out in the yard is the male Zabulon Skipper. But, in a slightly more subdued way, the female is no snoozer either. So the Zabulon show sexual dimorphism and “interestingly” enough, the Clouded Skipper (either sex as they are nearly identical) looks much like the female Zabulon. And as you’ll see from the pics, the two sexes of Zabulon are wildly different-looking. If you find one that looks like a female Zabulon, a great way to tell which species it is, is if you see the fine white line on the upper (leading) edge of the hindwing. You may think “I’ll never see that tiny bit of white! Gerwin’s crazy!” But in fact, it is pretty noticeable (notwithstanding that Gerwin can still be crazy).
I find the chestnut coloration of the female Zabulon quite beautiful – in this species, this color shows best when fresh and when the light hits it just right. I also appreciate the “dusty” or “frosted” appearance of the Clouded Skipper, which is on the underside of this species. I might have named this one “Foggy” Skipper, as that is how that marking appears to me, when I see it. Although grayish-white may not seem like an appealing coloration, it looks quite lovely to me, set against the dark background.
The Fiery Skipper is also fairly bright, as you can see. And it is a dimorphic species. The male is a brighter yellow-orange with small spots, whereas the female is a quieter yellow-orange, with larger brownish spots. Unfortunately, I somehow managed to photograph the undersides of only male Fiery’s. I will be on the lookout now! The Fiery Skipper is one of the most abundant skippers I see out there, and it is particularly fond of Lantana. I know Lantana is not native to these parts, but it produces some good nectar and I confess, I grow some in a pot or two around here, and many many butterflies are attracted to it. The butterflies have spoken.
Many Skipper larvae feed on a variety of grasses. Two of the kinds that the Zabulon will feed on are Poa and Eragrostis species. I am particularly fond of Eragrostis, one of which is the Purple Love Grass (I love purple so this circle is complete). I have planted some (Purple Love Grass) in the front yard. Poa’s are common everywhere and Poa annua is considered a real pest, and many folks spray a lot of herbicide to try and control it. Poa glauca is an ornamental Bluestem that is commonly planted.
Clouded and Fiery Skipper larvae feed on St. Augustine Grass, another common ornamental, and Fiery’s will also feed on Bermuda Grass, yet another non-native.
Take a walk around the neighborhood this month and enjoy the challenge of identifying some of these butterflies sipping and skipping into autumn.
First published on the Wild West blog site: wildwestavent.wordpress.com
A poem by Jill Walsh ~ August 9, 2016
A little bird came hopping by, foraging for seeds
Enchanted I sat witness to, his dance amid the trees
A tail of white-tipped feathers splayed, head bobbing up and down
The subtle sound of shuffling feet, as he scratched the fertile ground
He waltzed through dappled waves of light, with wings of brilliant hue
While rays of glistening sun unveiled, opalescent shades of blue
A triumphant chirp did soon resound, when grasped within his beak
The treasured prize uncovered, beneath the fallen leaves