Archive for September 2012

The King is Dead: Appreciating a Monarch Corpse

September 30, 2012
still life with monarch butterfly

Late-summer still life: monarch butterfly with flowers and tomato

I’m still seeing monarchs here at the East End of Long Island, but the big wave of migrating monarchs seems to have passed.

In response to my earlier post on monarchs, Philadelphia nature blogger Donna Long of In Season wrote that the monarchs I saw flying southwest were probably heading to a well-known gathering spot at Cape May, New Jersey, where they rest before continuing south. And British blogger Mark Wilkinson of The Badger’s Eye, wrote from England to say that a monarch, apparently blown off course on its way to Mexico, had crossed the Atlantic and turned up in England. There it caused a stir among British birders, who trekked from far and wide to view the (to them) exotic creature.

Monarchs may not be exotic here on the eastern coast of the United States. They may even be ordinary. But as Julian Hoffman writes in a lovely post called “The Wonder of Ordinary Places,” there is a mode of perception whereby “the ordinary transforms into the extraordinary.”

Last week, after a night of fierce winds and some rain, I found a beautiful male monarch butterfly dead on the grass.

dead monarch butterfly

Lower body is coming through the top of the wings. (The legs are on the other side.)

The monarch is an extraordinary combination of fragility and strength. In the photo below, you can clearly see on the right one of the places where the wing has torn. (Note also the heavily furred body and the small bulb at the end of the antennae.)

Torn butterfly wing

Worn wings.

Yet this tiny animal is capable of flying thousands of miles to migrate to its winter hibernation spot in Mexico. In fact, scientists have reported that by the time monarchs reach their winter habitat, the wings are often torn and worn, sometimes severely.

Looking closely at the little corpse, I first wondered if it was deformed. The legs seemed to be located above the wings, as if on top of the body.

The rest of the butterfly’s body has slipped through the wings to the upper side.

A deformed monarch put me in mind of Shakespeare’s King Richard III, attacked by Lady Anne as a “foul lump of deformity.”  But in fact, the butterfly’s lower body has simply slipped through the opening between the wings and emerged at the upper side of the wings.  In other words, the legs are where they should be, but the lower body has moved.  According to my research, this is not an uncommon death position for a butterfly.

Deformities in butterflies are not uncommon and most often involve the wings. When a butterfly emerges from its chrysalis, it must dry its wings and allow them to “set.” If the animal falls from its perch or doesn’t have space to freely open the wings, the wings can crumple or bend.  In addition, if the chrysalis has been damaged during metamorphosis, the adult butterfly’s body will reflect that damage.

You may wonder how I can so confidently assert that this butterfly is a male.  Male monarchs can be identified by  tiny scent glands. Look for a small black spot on a vein of the hind wings, clearly visible below.

Scent spot on wing of male monarch butterfly

Scent gland visible on hind wing of male monarch butterfly

Scent glands, found on many butterfly species, emit female-attracting chemicals during courtship. Had this butterfly survived to complete a successful migration, he might have used these spots to court and reproduce next spring.

Instead, he’s part of a late-summer still life.

late summer colors

Late-summer still life 2.

The Return of the Burry Dog

September 28, 2012
Dog and burrs

The Burry Dog

Yes, readers, It’s that time of year again: It’s Burdock Time.


Giant clump of burrs waits for unsuspecting passerby.

I’ve written at some length about burdock and its progeny, the burr, as well as about wonderfully bizarre ancient celebrations like the burry man.  So I’m familiar with this tenacious non-native weed whose extraordinary clinginess inspired the invention of velcro.  And yet, despite my heightened burdock awareness, on a recent walk on the upper pathway inside Riverside Park, the dog and the burdock became again … as one.

Dog with burrs in his fur

Eyebrow burrs from a 2010 encounter.

The day shone, the air was fresh, and for a moment, all had seemed right with our little world.  And then the dog started limping. Checking his paws, I found burrs, burrs and more burrs. In a moment of inattention, lulled by the beauty of the day, we had once again been ambushed by burdock, which lies in wait for moving targets like my poor dog in order to spread its seed and take over an unsuspecting world.

Burdock plant in fall

It only looks dead.

Since I first wrote about burrs in 2010, readers have shared their burry encounters. Carlie wrote me about the annual Burdock Festival of Benson, Vermont.  And Tricia of Amusing the Zillion, the peerless blog of all things Coney Island, told me burdock is a Japanese delicacy known as gobo, and is readily available at local Japanese restaurants. (Note to  Tricia: we still need to meet up for that burdock dish in the East Village.)  I also learned that burdock root, which is said to have anti-bacterial and healing properties, was one of the original ingredients in root beer, which is the nicest thing I’ve heard about burdock yet.

Antique Hires Root Beer Advertisement

Hires Root Beer, the health & temperance drink. Image: James D. Julia Auctioneers

Now I see that NYC’s own forager, Wildman Steve Brill, offers lots of burdock information as well as a video on cooking the evil vegetable.

And there seems to be a whole movement to Eat the Weeds, which sounds to me like a very good idea, indeed.

Just do us all a favor, and start with burdock. The dog and I will thank you.

The dog and I: same hair style.

Read more:
The Burry Man, the Burry Dog and Burdock
Plant People: Green Man, Burry Man, Moss Man and Poison Ivy 

Crabbing on Mecox Bay

September 26, 2012
brilliant blue crab

How the Atlantic blue crab got its name.

A mouth-watering article in today’s NY Times extols the joys of eating Atlantic blue crab. Photos of cooked crab dishes accompany loving descriptions by John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger of catching and cooking crabs every September in Massachusetts.

I’ve never gone crabbing myself, but I’m fascinated by the many crabbers who work this stretch of Mecox Bay on Long Island.

crabbing on long island

Crabbing at sunset on Mecox Bay

Mecox Bay’s crabbers encompass a wide variety of ages and ethnicities.

Crabbers in matching shirts.

But the technique is pretty much always the same.

A raw chicken leg or neck is tied to a string and dropped into the shallow waters by the edge of the road.

Crabber checks the many strings he has attached to pilings.

The crabber waits patiently with a long-handled net at the ready to catch the crab after it has locked on to the chicken.  Some people stand right in the water to wait for their prey. Most stay on shore.

Crabber takes a break.

Once the crab has been netted, it is dropped into a bucket or cooler to await its fate.

crab caught in Mecox Bay

Crabs await their fate.

This entire stretch of road is so chicken-scented that Esau the dog doesn’t want to move past it.  It’s also, sadly, often littered with styrofoam meat trays and stripped bones on strings.

chicken bone on string used to catch crabs

A chicken bone still attached to its fishing string.

how to catch crabs

Chicken bone on a string

There are restrictions on crabbing.

crabbing regulations, southampton long island

A flyer listing crabbing restrictions is posted along the road.

But I rather doubt they are closely followed.

Although you might not know it from photographs of cooked meat, Atlantic blue crabs are beautiful animals.

blue crab

Blue crab. Image: Maryland Department of Natural Resources

Earlier this month, I talked briefly with young scientists collecting crabs not for food but for research.

Catching crabs for a research experiment

They used a trap as well as the standard tools of the trade.

They were trapping both blue and green crabs for an experiment to compare the mussel-eating habits of the two animals. All crabs would be kept without food for 24 hours, so that they were all hungry. They would then be given mussels and their consumption rate compared.

Watch this amazing little video, and you will see that crabs did not evolve their claws just so we humans could eat them.

What is this hatchling turtle?

September 21, 2012

Yesterday evening, as Esau the dog and I walked along the road in the last light of the day, we spotted a strange small shape almost under our feet.

hatchling turtle

Tiny turtle on the road

It is a tiny turtle, completely still, on the road.

Its strange eyes make it look almost like a child’s toy dropped carelessly from a stroller. Almost. I have that strange gathering of the insides that I feel when I see an animal unexpectedly. I pick up the little creature to see if it’s alive. It is.

I know it’s generally best to leave baby animals where one finds them. But I can’t leave it on the road.  And does it need water or land? I think it may be a baby snapping turtle, but I’m not sure.  Do snappers live in salty water? Because Mecox Bay is the only water around. It is brackish rather than full salt, as it is only occasionally open to the ocean. Most of the year, it is more like a salt water pond.

mecox bay at sunset

Whichever way you choose, Mecox Bay at sunset is gorgeous.

I bring the little turtle home and leave it on the deck while I go inside to look for a guide book that will help me identify it.

Beach house guide books, accumulated over the decades by family and renters.

There are books on flowers, trees, birds, mammals, sea creatures, sea shells, rocks and stars.  Not a word on reptiles. Well, the sea creature book has sea turtles, but I can tell this little guy doesn’t have a sea turtle’s flippers. So what are some identifying traits of the tiny turtle?

It is about half the size of my thumb.

tiny turtle

Tom Half-a-thumb

Or you could say it is probably about the size of silver dollar. Here it is next to a quarter.

Hatchling size

Small turtle.

It has huge, dark eyes. Or rather, the structure that contains the eye is huge and bulging. The eye itself is inside the bulge.

turtle eyes

Eyes like chocolate drops

The shell, or carapace is fairly flat, though rough, and ridged.  The color is a dark, earthy-looking brown. (The first photo, taken with my iPhone in fading light, does not accurately convey the deep mud color.)  The tail is very long and mobile. The little turtle does not seem able to retract fully into its shell.

small turtle

Look at that tail.

It has an impressive set of claws.

baby turtle

Long claws, tiny feet.

I do a quick google search, but find no satisfactory answers. I decide to leave it to make its own way in nature, placing it under a hedge in a protected spot. It just sits there and doesn’t move.

Dear readers, I’m sure some of you can easily identify this little guy for me.  Please leave a comment with your thoughts on what kind of turtle this is, and on what you think I should have done with it.

What a Day: Wildlife on Long Island

September 18, 2012

What a day.

It started with a monarch butterfly on the deck.

An hour later, as Esau the dog and I were on our way to the ocean, the sight of an airborne river of butterflies made me stop in wonder. A wavering parade of monarchs fluttered across the parking lot, the road and the dunes, heading west-southwest. They crossed Mecox Bay and Channel Pond, crossed fields and yards, some flying high, some low, in small groups or singly, too small for my camera to catch.

The sun was already hot, but the air stayed cool with the tease of a promise of fall.  After about ten minutes, the insect stream slowed and we continued on to the ocean. A huge flock of swallows dipped and hunted over the dunes before heading off in the same general direction as the monarchs. They were also too small, fast and high up for my camera to catch, so you will have to look at swallowless dunes and take my sighting on faith.

Down the beach, a man and a little boy were surfcasting.

On the way home, we stopped, as ever, at the bridge, where a snowy egret and a great blue heron stalked and hunted.

Snowy egret on the left; great blue heron on the right.

Within a minute of our arrival, the heron took flight, squawking three mighty squawks as it went.

The heron takes off toward the serene little egret.

The heron circles and flies off to the right.

The snowy, now in sole possession of this prime fishing spot, seemed unmoved. In fact, it didn’t move.

“Squawk all you like, big fella. I shall not be moved.”

Snowy egrets seem to me to be bolder than great blue herons , and great blue herons to be bolder than great egrets. At least, this seems to be true around Mecox Bay this fall. The big guys startle and fly off, as this great egret did several days ago at sunset.

The little guys just go about their business.

egret fishes

Snowy egret stabs a fish.

Out on the bay, a single Mute swan floated strangely on the water,

mute swan, strange posture

A mute swan rests on the water.

its neck twisted round, its beak tucked into its feathers, and one wing raised like a protective screen.

In the afternoon I biked into town for food, as I am without a car for a few days.

I passed reeds that resounded with birdsong, but no birds could, at first, be seen.  Stopping for a closer look, I understood that the reeds were a temporary city dense with red-winged blackbirds.

Then the blackbirds – the males in fall-faded epaulets and females in drab brown – began to fly out of the reed city and across the road.  Fifty or sixty or more winged away and yet the reeds remained full of song.

I passed a single deer feeding by the side of the road.

When I stopped the bike, it watched me intently.

Then, surprisingly, it moved a few steps closer.

And began again to feed.

I too moved quietly closer, trying to get out of the bright sunlight.  And …

“What’s that?”

the deer and I reached the end of our tale.

Near the end of the day, Esau and I again walked to the ocean.  On the way, I noticed a swan swimming in its customarily regal posture, but unusually close to a man fishing from the roadside. I wondered about this.

Esau basked at the beach.

On our way back, we saw the kingfisher perched on one of its favorite pilings near the egret’s fishing spot.

The swan had again tucked its head under its wing

and was letting itself drift on the open water.

I wondered if it were ill or injured, and Esau sat down to ponder that question or another.

What will we see tomorrow?

Duck and Egret Meet to Dine

September 16, 2012

Of late, on walks to the ocean, I often see a duck and an egret foraging together.

Duck and egret

A female duck and an egret fish and forage together.

They wade, waddle, stalk or paddle in the little strait that joins Mecox Bay

Mecox Bay at sunset

Sunset reflected in Mecox Bay

to saltwater Channel Pond.

Great blue heron flies over Channel Pond

A great blue heron flies over Channel Pond.

The unprepossessing little white bridge that passes over the channel is one of the best spots around for spotting herons and egrets.

Bridge on Flying Point Road

The little bridge on Flying Point Road.

A great blue heron or a snowy egret is almost always fishing in the shallows at one side of the bridge or the other.

Snowy egret

A snowy egret wades across the water.

Sometimes there are more than one.

Two snowy egrets

Two snowy egrets share a fishing spot.

Lately, a solitary female duck has been dabbling here. Sometimes she is on her own.

Female duck

Lady duck on her own.

But more often she shares the spot with a snowy egret.

Duck and egret

Now and then another bird joins the fine fishing spot, as did this belted kingfisher, perched on a piling to the left.

kingfisher and duck

Belted kingfisher sits on piling while duck rests below.

You can’t see it in the photos, but the snowy egret was also present, although hidden behind low-hanging branches on the right.

kingfisher flies off

The kingfisher flies to another perch.

There are plenty of egrets around, so it’s possible that the duck is with a different egret each time I see it.

Snowy egret and duck

But I prefer to imagine that she and a particular egret, despite their differences in shape, eating habits and behavior, have forged a friendship of sorts.

If I were Beatrix Potter, I’d write and draw a story about unlikely companions.

The Pie and the Patty Pan

Ribby, Duchess and the doctor from The Pie and the Patty Pan by Beatrix Potter

But lest I seem to have wandered too far into cozy animal fantasyland, I’m well aware that the larger herons and egrets eat ducklings whenever they can get them.

Still the ability to kill doesn’t negate the possibility of companionship. Just look at us humans. And watching animals, domestic and wild, teaches me that within the general behavior of each species is plenty of room for individual variation, including behaviors that lie outside the norm.

So I think I’ll reserve the right to imagine that this particular duck and this particular egret are so often spotted together because, quite simply, they take pleasure in each other’s company.

Mr. Snowy Egret and the Solitary Duck

Ah me, if only I could draw. Well, here is a drawing of a waterbird by someone who can – Sophie Webb, biologist and illustrator.

Western Grebe by Sophie Webb

Western Grebe by Sophie Webb. Click to see more of Sophie’s work.

Monarch Migration

September 14, 2012

Farewell to the monarchs, beautiful kings and queens of the insect world.  

Monarch butterfly stocks up on nectar for the long flight south.

Monarch butterflies are fluttering and feeding all over eastern Long Island right now. They’re in the garden, by the roadside, and over the fields, preparing for fall migration to Mexico.

Monarch Watch, a website devoted to monarch conservation, estimates the peak days in “monarch abundance” to be September 8-20, so we’re right on schedule.

The monarch life cycle is extraordinary, as it takes several generations to complete a year’s cycle. Every fall, eastern monarchs migrate thousands of miles to spend the winter in Mexico’s Sierra Nevada. In March or April the butterflies return to the southern United States, seeking milkweed plants on which to lay their eggs.  The migrant generation will die before reaching the northern states.  Further colonization depends on the next generation.

After four days or so, the caterpillars hatch. They live on milkweed for about two weeks until fully grown.  Then they spin a chrysalis, inside which they metamorphose from caterpillar to butterfly. They emerge after about 10 days, and continue their parents’ journey north, laying eggs as they go.  The next generation of eggs will hatch in May and June, the third in July or August.  These butterflies will live just two to six weeks.

But the fourth generation of monarchs, emerging in late summer or early fall, will live as long as eight or nine months. These are the migrants that complete the cycle, flying south in early fall and returning in the spring.

They must survive wind, weather, and automobile windshields. Hungry birds are less of a threat since the caterpillar’s milkweed diet makes the monarchs poisonous to most birds or, at least, bad-tasting. The biggest threats to the monarch’s existence are climate change and illegal logging in Mexico, although recent reports from the World Wildlife Fund indicate that logging within the butterfly sanctuary has ceased.

To help scientists learn more about monarchs, you can participate in a citizen science project at Monarch Watch, tracking butterfly sightings and even tagging the insects with tiny tags.

Change in the Hamptons

September 12, 2012

Late last Thursday, as Esau and I walked toward the ocean, we spotted a herd of nine deer.

White-tailed deer

Almost fifty years ago, my family first started coming to this house on Flying Point Road.

Farmhouse in Water Mill, NY

House with new deck and sliding doors.

The house backed onto a large potato field that stretched low towards the ocean dunes.  After harvesting, we’d glean potatoes from the field, and delicious they were.  Flocks of migrating Canada geese grazed  and picked up insects in the fields, lured by hunters’ decoys of geese resting and eating.  Eastern Long Island then was a place of open vistas.  The front of the house faced little Mecox Bay, which was then sludgy and polluted from the waste of hundreds of Long Island ducklings reared at the duck farm on the other side of the bay. Long Island was famous for its Pekin ducklings until rising property values, anti-pollution regulations, and increased cost of grain shrank the industry.

The Big Duck, Riverhead, NY

Roadside architecture of the highest order: Riverhead’s Big Duck used to sell, what else, duck.

Families of pheasants came to call and foxes lived nearby in the low wild tangles of overgrown brush.  Deer, though? Not so much.

Well, times have changed.  Today, Long Island’s potato fields are largely gone, Mcmansions rule, and open spaces are few and far between.

Cottontail rabbit

A cottontail rabbit nibbles grass in a cleared space leading down to Mecox Bay.

The duck farms are also mostly gone, and the ones that remain are indoor operations now.  Mecox Bay is sparklingly clean,

Mecox Bay at sunset

Mecox Bay at sunset

and is home to herons and egrets,

snowy egret in Mecox Bay

Snowy egrets are regulars in this spot.

terns and gulls,

tern in Mecox Bay

Tern hovering and diving in Mecox Bay

ospreys, kingfishers, skimmers, and a changing host of waterfowl, including coots, grebes, sea ducks, Canada geese, and Mute swans.

Mute swan in Mecox Bay

A swan floats in Mecox Bay earlier this summer.

Wild turkeys have returned to the area, and despite the dwindling wild areas, my sister-in law recently saw a fox and her kits.

And white-tailed deer, after being driven nearly to extermination in New York State at the end of the nineteenth century, are back in force in Suffolk County, as throughout the state.

Deer formed one battalion of the Nature Army that my flower garden-loving father battled ceaselessly.  (Other enemy battalions were made up of digging creatures like voles and moles as well as invasive plants, like bittersweet and phragmites.)  Deer ate the tops off my father’s beloved day lilies, nibbled on his roses and helped themselves to my stepmother’s vegetable garden.  My father netted his gardens for a while, before deciding to put up deer fencing around virtually the entire property – which the deer simply leapt over.

Thus began a fierce, if one-sided, game of oneupmanship. My father raised the fence. The deer crashed right through it. My father strengthened the netting. The deer again leapt over. At its highest, the fence (mostly) worked, until a notice from the town informed us fences higher than 6 feet are not permitted; the fence has been cut back down.

I have mixed feelings about the fence. I’m happy to protect the flowers from deer depredation. I’m happy that Esau can run free, safe from the road.

Gray dog with flowers

Esau among the flowers.

But I’m sorry that any remaining pheasant families will no longer visit us, since pheasants do their visiting on foot. Turkeys, too, like to travel on foot. In fact, a couple of summers ago, my father and I watched one walk back and forth on the far side of the fence, gazing longingly through the mesh at our bird feeders. It didn’t seem to occur to the big bird that it had wings and could fly.

As for the deer, they may be spotted nightly in one of the two open spaces that still remain between our house and the ocean.

Long Island deer

A young grayish buck on the right with a fawn to the left.

The deer field is actually a large lot and is for sale.  Some time ago a tower was built in the middle of the field to show prospective buyers what an incredible view their new house could command from its second floor.

I’m happy to report that the field has grown up around the tower, and the animals have moved in.  It even seems to me that the deer are leaving our flowers alone, now that they have a beautiful yard of their own.

Yellowjackets in a Frog

September 6, 2012

In mid-August, we visited a friend’s house in Sag Harbor.  A lovely bronze frog held court on the deck railing.

Open and say, “Ah.”

But wait. What’s inside the frog? What the …?

Yellowjackets had colonized the interior of the frog, moving in and out of its mouth.

The poor creatures were waterlogged from recent downpours. Rather than trying to fly, they just crawled out and sat on the railing. I’m guessing they were trying to dry themselves out in the still-moist air.

The next day, the life-and-death insect drama continued.

Esau didn’t notice.

Nor did the dog of the house.

And I never did find out what happened to the yellowjackets. Life-and-death insect dramas go on all around us, all the time.  This one just happened to be more picturesque than most.

Hot Town, NYC

September 4, 2012

Minnie Mouse sells flavored ices on 109th Street.

It’s the day after Labor Day, and even this hot summer is drawing to a close.  The air is thick and heavy today as what’s left of Hurricane Isaac passes us.  And I’m thinking about summer in the city.

The way the colors are brighter than at any other time of year.

Remember when manikins (and womanikins) faced front, even in tight pants?

The way Amsterdam Avenue comes alive in the heat.

Caribbean blues on Amsterdam Avenue.

Girls in bright colors pass in front of a meat market on Amsterdam and 107th Street.

Another block, another meat market, this one on Amsterdam between 108th and 109th.

On 108th Street, a prayer meeting closes the street.

Hold hands or raise them high, bodies swaying.

Over on Broadway, too, August colors shimmer.

Famous Famiglia offers Italian ices in the summer.

On 59th Street, a plumed carriage horse was working hard, maybe too hard.

Carriage horse passes children on their way into Central Park.

Animals of all species need to slow down, cool down, and take it easy.


Esau rests by tiny blue flowers.


Lazy Boy squirrel.


Through gular fluttering, a form of panting, birds can cool their bodies.


Beneath the parasol, amid an array of stuff, a person dozes.

And cats.

Why we have benches.

The cat pictured in the above photo isn’t just any tabby.  It’s the (locally) famous Samad’s Gourmet cat,

Samad’s Gourmet on Broadway.

a very cool kitty, well known on the street, who is not above moonlighting in record sales.

Would you buy a used record from this cat?

But the photo just above was taken in cooler days, in the middle of winter, when a working cat doesn’t mind a little extra responsibility.  Mid-summer is a whole other story.

“So chill in the heat I can barely breathe.”

But perhaps the cat comes alive on a summer night, as the Lovin’Spoonful classic has it:

Cool cat lookin’ for a kitty
Gonna look in every corner of the city,

Ah, let’s just let the Spoonful tell it:

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