July 2 -- summertime is a quiet time for birding in southeast Pennsylvania.   I don't plan any trips in July.  In August we are going camping in the Adirondacks in upstate New York.   In the fall, I plan to go adventuring.   This summer will be gardening, golfing, writing (not just in the journal), and walks in the local parks.  Maybe I can also spend some time to learn how to use my camera.


A naturalist at home in Pennsylvania, taken by Kathryn Gadbow with her IPhone S4


July 9, 2015 - Bluebird walk, Longwood Gardens

    Early morning I went to Longwood Gardens to join a Bluebird walk led by Bill Haldeman to look at Bluebirds and Bluebird houses in the Meadow, a very large former cow pasture that Longwood is actively restoring to a more natural meadow, planting large numbers of native plants.  A highlight was when he carefully opened one of the active nests and brought out one of the babies.  He exploded one of the false nuggets of natural lore by telling us that it isn't true that if you touch a baby bird, the parents will abandon it.  The staff at Longwood frequently handles the birds to band them and care for them and has never had any rejected offspring.  Here's the pic:


Bill Haldeman, a real naturalist at work at Longwood Gardens, July, 2015


    Among the many points that Bill discussed were:

      - the design of the bluebird boxes that has helped Longwood to get success

      - the placement of the boxes, considering the territorial nature of the birds (need to be far apart)

      - deliberate placement of two boxes close together so that one will be used by Bluebirds and the other by Tree Swallows

      - need for active management so that the naturalist doesn't inadvertently make the condition he is modulating even worse.  Here the application is to tape over the bird box holes until April First (Not an April Fools joke).  This is because the cavity nesters that people are trying to help (Bluebirds, Tree Swallows and Purple Martins) are migrators and are in competition with an unpopular non-migrator (House Sparrow).  If the nests are left open all spring, the sparrows will have a full month to claim the nest boxes before the migrators arrive.  That would help the sparrows and make conditions worse for the birds for whom the boxes are intended.

      - another tip was an offshoot from a question that I asked about the possibility of swallows doing better because another insect eater (bats) was in decline.   Bill responded, "Probably not, because the daytime and nighttime insects are different."  However, thinking about insects is something that they do at Longwood as they try to restore the Meadow.  The idea is to get native plants that are food for native insects that are food for insect-eating native birds.  Those that developed together can exist together without killing each other. 



July 10, 2015 - a dragonfly day

    I started the day by saving another dragonfly from my back porch.  This one perched on my finger and I showed it to Chris.  Although dragonfly adults are voracious carnivores of smaller insects, they don't bite humans.  They also can't sew up your ears, which is another crazy European idea that got passed on to me as a kid.  By the time, we got the camera ready to photo it, the dragonfly flew away.  Its body was white and blue, and its wings had black bands.  It was one of the bigger ones, thick and longer than two inches.  For now at least, I'm not going to let my ignorance of the species names get in the way of my enjoyment of this amazing creature.

    Mid-morning Chris and I went to Longwood Gardens where the current seasonal highlighted plant is the water lily.  In the center of the Conservatory there is a large circular pond surrounded by six smaller rectangular ponds, showcasing water lilies with spectacular blooms and lovely leaves or pads.  There are plants so huge that a single plant dominates an entire pond, sending up large tubes from its underwater roots that end at the surface in lily pads four feet in diameter with a two inch high edge rimming the pad, making it look like a pan.  I saw one worker, who was in the pond and was working on the lights for the nighttime viewing, forget himself and actually put his tools on the lily pad like it was a table. 


Lilly pads, Longwood Gardens, July, 2015

    Other lily pads were smaller but striated in interesting patterns of green and black.  The blooms were huge -- many at five or six inches across -- and were bright hues of yellow, red, purple, white, and pink, with some in softer pastel shades of light blue and peach.  On the pond, above it, around it, dragonflies in large numbers and different sizes and colors danced their mating rituals.

    The day was overcast, which I have learned from on-line "tips on flower photography" and from experimenting, is really good light for taking pictures of flowers.  It removes the distracting hard lines of dark shadows, prevents over-exposed blooms, and enhances the colors in a soft and gentle way.  I have not tried to do a "flower study" yet, so this is a first for me.  I started with the wide-angle kit lens that came with my camera body.  None of those were good.  The telephoto lens did a good job and I played with manual and autofocus, both doing a decent job.  Later, I found that I need to do a lot of reading on setting aperture, exposure, and using a remote shutter - for starters.  I was shocked to find out that the big "A" on the dial on top of the camera body doesn't stand for "autofocus".  It means "Aperture priority".  I have a lot to learn, but the camera still captured some pretty shots that were about light and color.  I don't have a philosophical axe to grind, like for example Thoreau on slavery, so my pics don't have a deep meaning.  Here is what the gold-standard of writer/naturalist/philosophers wrote in his nineteenth century journal:

        "June 19, 1853 -- Exquisitely beautiful and unlike anything else that we have, is the first white lily in some shallow lagoon... How admirable its purity!  How innocently sweet its fragrance!  How significant that the rich, black mud of our dead stream produces the water-lily -- out of that fertile slime springs this spotless purity!"

       "June 16, 1854 -- It is as if all the pure and sweet and virtuous was extracted from the slime and decay of earth and presented thus in a flower.  The resurrection of virtue!"

    It didn't take me long to become distracted from the beauty of the flowers and start to notice the motion of the dragonflies.  They are territorial and will alight on the same plant over and over to protect a good mating location or a good hunting location.  That makes it possible to photograph them by focusing on the spot where they just left and waiting for them to return.  The dragonflies were using many of the lilies as perches from which to launch their frequent flights;  returning to the flower to rest for a portion of a minute.  So I stopped taking flower pictures and started taking pictures of these lordly and exquisite insects, treating the lilies as furniture and backdrops for these ancient kings of the ponds.


Dragonfly on a water lily, Longwood Gardens, July, 2015


 July 11, 2015 - more dragonflies

    This day was brilliantly sunny, so I went back to the Longwood water lily ponds to see how the flowers and dragonflies looked in brighter light.  The colors of the blooms were dazzling, sometimes overpowering the right blues and greens of the dragonflies.  In one picture, I captured the beating wings of hovering small blue dragonflies, the wings a blur like a helicopter.


Hovering dragonflies, Longwood Gardens, July, 2015


     In another shot two of these little blue insects were joined together in mating to almost complete a heart-shaped pattern. 

Dragonflies mating, Longwood Gardens, July, 2015

     So here's the scoop on Dragonfly sex.  The male grasps the female behind her head and she coasts as he flies to a suitable perch.  After landing, he deposits a sperm sac on his torso and she bends beneath to get the semen, completing a "heart shape".  If another male mates with her, he can scoop out the previous semen before depositing his, so the first dragonfly will guard the female to prevent that.   A single female can lay thousands of eggs.

    More biology, which I took from Wikipedia:  The larval stage lasts for two months to several years.  The relatively brief adult phase, which in the temperate zones will very likely end at the conclusion of the summer or fall, is taken up by mating and eating.  The larger dragonflies are as fast as small songbirds and can fly at up to 30 mph.  They can fly in any direction, including backwards, and can hover.  When stationary, they keep their wings stretched out, while the closely related damselflies keep their wings positioned up. 

    Not all the dragonflies in the north will die during the winter.  At least 16 of the 326 North American species (there are over 3000 species world-wide) have been observed migrating south in the fall.  This is from the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership website, "Dragonflies:  Four Wings, Will Travel".  The return migration has not been observed, but it happens.  Adults are seen in the early spring in northern locations while the ponds still have the larval stages.  Currently, we don't know where the dragonflies migrate to.  They are strong enough fliers to cross oceans, so they could be going really far.


July 12, 2015 - thoughts about dragonflies

    In a poem called "Two Voices" written by Tennyson in 1842 (or 1833/34, depending on your source), the poet describes a dragonfly in ecdysis (I was showing off.  I could have said "moulting".  The exoskeleton of the aquatic larva is shed and the adult insect emerges) with these lines:

      "An inner impulse rent the veil

       Of his old husk;  from head to tail

       Come out clear plates of sapphire mail."  

    Disappointingly to me, the poem doesn't have anything to do with dragonflies and is about a depressed author having a debate with himself on whether to give in to his despair.  Fortunately for him, he is eventually inspired by love, so the poem has a predictably happy ending.  Personally, I was kind of rooting that the voice of despair would win the argument, but that's probably not very nice.  Along the way of this very long work, there was a line that jumped out at me:  "Self-blinded are you by your pride."  That's the negative voice pointing out that Mankind is not so important in the grand scheme of Nature and that the vast Universe wouldn't miss the author at all, if he ceased to exist (poetry talk for offing himself).  That line grabbed me because it pointed out to me that nineteenth century thinkers were attempting to puzzle out Man's unique place in Nature, or conversely whether he had a unique place in Nature.  So that makes that kind of talk a little bit lame in the twenty-first century.  So I won't do that anymore.  ... I hope.

    Back again to the nineteenth century and back to dragonflies and back to Thoreau's Journal:

      "August 3, 1856 -- The sun coming out when I am off Clamshell, the abundant small dragon-flies of different colors, bright-blue and lighter, looped along the floating vallisneria, make a very lively and gay appearance.  I fancy these bright loops adorn or set forth the river like triumphal arches for my procession, stretching from side to side."

    I tip my baseball cap to the great naturalist philosopher and won't be foolish enough to try to out write the master.  But perhaps I can add a few things that he couldn't have been aware of.  The first is that our archeologists have found that dragonflies are among the most ancient of life forms.  They have found fossils of dragonflies that are over 300 million years old and some as large as three-feet in wing span.  Knowing this and seeing them in their "sapphire mail", it is hard for me to think that Thoreau's "triumphal procession" through the vallisneria (eel grass or wild celery: green, underwater plants common in the Connecticut River) was for him.  It seems more likely that the procession was in honor of the perfectly adapted creatures who have ruled the watery regions for an age that dwarves the most majestic empires of men -- both in length of time and expanse of geography.  It reminds me that our puny ten million years as hominids is not long compared to the time span of the dragonfly species.  The 35,000 years of our current sub-species is about one-hundredth of one percent of the time that dragonflies have been on the planet.

    My other thought might be coming to me from my perspective as an older guy, while he never reached these advanced years.  Still fired by the energy of youth, Thoreau focuses on the beauty of the single bloom and senses the power of Nature as expressed in the recurrence of the individual miracles -- beauty arising from corruption.  With the fires of youth severely tamped down, I focus on the power of Nature in its unbelievable multiplicity, with the immense abundance in its profusion creating something beyond the sum of the individuals -- like water droplets becoming rain or rivers or oceans -- and in their complex and overlapping connections creating things that do not seem intuitive to their nature -- like water droplets freezing to become a solid platform on which to walk across -- or cells connecting to form complex creatures -- or billions and billions and billions of living and non-living things linking together to form ecosystems.  Stuff like that is less passionate, maybe more old guy stuff, I think.

    Chris and I went back to Longwood at night to see a light and sound show that is projected throughout the garden as an experience playing with light, color, motion and sound interacting with living forms.  In one installation projected on a woods behind the lake, giant dragonflies danced across the sky above the water -- a fitting end to my summer days with dragonflies.

    Some of my dragonfly/water lily pictures and a poem that I wrote about the power in the connections of things are in a Flickr album that you can get to from the link on the home page of this web-site.  Look for the link under the picture of the Green Jay.  Here's one of the pictures that I took on day two:




July 22 - Stroud Preserve, West Chester, PA

    I went to look for Bobolinks, but the fields where they nest were already mowed and these grassland birds dispersed to other parts of the preserve or maybe to other locations entirely.  At Stroud, NLT harvests the hay in mid-July, which gives the birds time to nest and fledge.  Mowing in May would kill them.  NLT is showing that reasonable compromises are possible with farming, recreation, and wildlife conservation.  Next year, I need to get out in May or June to have a chance to see these guys.

    Early in the walk, I saw a Common Yellowthroat, so I decided to change my goal.   I saw a lot of these feisty warblers, so the walk was successful.  I also saw a lot of Cedar Waxwings and Tree Swallows hunting insects above the Brandywine at 7:20 AM on the way in, but these were all gone when I left at 9:30.   I saw Barn Swallows over the marshy fields, Willow Flycatchers perching on the tree tops, all ages and both sexes of Red-winged Blackbirds, beautifully singing Robins, several different kinds of sparrows, Blue Jays, Vultures, a mostly yellow unidentified warbler (I'm guessing juvenile Common Yellowthroat), a very ticked off Red-tailed Hawk, Cardinals, Bluebirds, Crows, Mourning Doves and many flocks of small dark birds cruising around the preserve in the distance.  


Male Common Yellowthroat - Stroud Preserve, PA - July, 2015


girlfriend of the above Yellowthroat - Stroud Preserve - July, 2015


Red-tailed Hawk screaming at a guy taking his picture - Stroud Preserve - July, 2015


 July 22, 2015 - Exton

    I experimented with different settings on my camera and figured out how to set the Exposure, Aperture, and Shutter Speed.  One of the photographers that I met at Exton Park told me that she leaves her camera set on Aperture priority and sets the Exposure up or down based on the changing light.  So now I know what she meant and can do that too.  I tried some of the scene modes on the camera and didn't see much improvement over what I've been doing.   Switching between Manual Focus and Autofocus is something that I'm getting used to.  Autofocus is faster and frequently does the best job, but lots of times it can't focus on the right subject.  It especially has difficulty with birds in trees, bushes, or fields - which is pretty much most of the time.  After practicing on a flower in my backyard, I got a photo that I like:


Exton, Pa - July, 2015


July 23, 2015 - The Meadows at Cape May

    Chris and I (without Beans) went to Cape May for a perfect weather day.   We went on a couple walks where Chris had previously stayed behind because Beans wasn't allowed on these trails.   At Cape May State Park we saw some great dragonflies and several Osprey.   We went to the Meadows, which is a nearby Nature Conservancy site.  I was going to leave the camera in the car because in mid afternoon I didn't expect to see any wildlife.   Chris insisted that I lug the camera along and she nailed that one.   At the pool to the east of the observation deck there were Black Skimmers fishing and putting on a show.  There were a couple of Glossy Ibis families, a Great Egret, a Snowy Egret, an American Oystercatcher, terns, gulls, Greater Yellowlegs, Semipalmated and Pectoral Sandpipers, and other shorebirds sharing the site.  Also near the pond was a nesting pair of Osprey and their chick.  After a great two hours, we left to eat lunch and take a nap on Sunset Beach.   Then in the evening we went back and the Skimmers were still there and we watched them put on an absolute aerial show for a couple hours.  

    Skimmers weigh under a pound, but have 44 inch wing spans.   So being light with gigantic wings, they can really fly.   They come in fast over the water and skim along the surface, dipping their huge lower beaks under the surface.  The lower beak is a good inch or two longer than the upper beak and makes a perfect scoop to pick up small fish.  Lots of the time, they seem to make their dives in pairs, with one bird a little behind the other.  They were approaching the pond from the beach to the southwest, then making several fast dives around the pond, leaving long wakes at each dive.  Then they would head back to the beach with their fish.  With the naked eye, you can see the long wakes that they make along the surface.  The camera caught a behavior that I didn't understand at first.  Frequently the bird is bending his head back with his bill above the water.  If you look at the water in those photos, you see that the wake is ending with a big splash and that the bird has his beak snapped shut.  He must have just caught his fish and is heading up from the dive.  These birds usually fish early in the morning and late in the evening along the ocean shore or in back bays.  The  pond is a few hundred yards from the beach and must have been loaded with small fish.   In my photos, I saw dozens of Skimmers with three inch long minnows, so they were getting fish all day.   My album is on Flickr and you can use the link on the home page to get to it.   These are some pretty good wild life photos


Black Skimmer, Cape May, NY, 07/23/2015


July 30, 2015 - Last night's dream

    I'm typing this into the Journal right away, before I realize how stupid it is.   Chris pointed out a few weeks ago that this is my journal and I should add whatever I want to it.  This dream seems strange because it is so normal.

    I was working on a computer in an office like my old team room at work.  A team meeting was going on around me, which I was doing my best to avoid.  The meeting was an "intervention" for one of the team members who was exhibiting "lack of self confidence".   The team leader's voice went on for a little in the background and then I heard him say, "Bill, say something to Pete."

   I turned and saw that Pete was one of my classmates from elementary school, grown-up of course.   So I knew that this was a dream because I hadn't seen this person in many decades.  I said, "Define yourself narrowly, but view yourself from a wider perspective."  Then I turned back around to my computer.

    I heard Pete say, "What do you mean?"

    I answered, "Say you are on a team of three people.  All of you are competent to do the project or you would not have been assigned to the team.  Even if you are the best on the team, you are only marginally better than the others, within the context of the tasks for that project.  Someone has to be the third best on the team and that might be you.   So viewing yourself this way, you don't see yourself as special, you defer to your teammates, and you lose confidence.

    "But if you view yourself globally, for example, you realize that there are millions of people competent to do your job and billions who are not.  Probably there are over 6 billion people on the planet who cannot grasp what you do and cannot learn to do it with reasonable effort.  Or looking just within your profession,  lots of similar technicians have different technical skills and abilities, so only a small subset of those could be assigned to your project and be expected to contribute right away.  Viewing yourself from these perspectives reinforces your uniqueness and talent and self-confidence."

    Then in the dream I turned back to my computer again and woke up a few minutes later.   Lying awake in my bed, I thought that it would be smart if I took my own dream-self advice.