Tuesday, November 22, 2016

An Evening Paddle on the Tonawanda


Serenity can be found just steps from our back door.
Because it borders our property, we’ve paddled Tonawanda Creek more than any other local stream during the past three decades. While anytime we get the opportunity to paddle together is a good time, it’s during the fall months that we most enjoy being on the water. During the last half hour of daylight is an especially magical time, as day fades into night. It is then, as darkness slowly permeates our surroundings that the sounds of the nocturnal denizens penetrate the still of the evening – perhaps the trill of a Screech owl or the loud splash of a beaver sounding the alarm.

It's at about this time – on ultra clear nights - stars will start appearing overhead. There'll be one or two at first while there is yet a faint orange flow on the horizon, then, as the heavenly recesses become inky black, the night sky suddenly resembles a celestial display of diamonds scattered on black velvet. At such times I'm reminded of a passage from the Book of Psalms….”The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.

"He leadeth me beside still waters....."
Whether paddling night or day on a slow-moving stream, this autumn has been nothing short of spectacular, and a great season for seeing first hand an awesome display of God’s Handiwork.

Until Next Time, 
Jim & Claudia






Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Dragonfly - A Stealthful Hunter


A Twelve Spotted Skimmer alights on a Spiraea twig.
Fascinated with nature at an early age, I spent a great deal of time in my formative years inspecting insects. Those most readily available and easy to catch were crickets, grasshoppers and sow bugs. Among those not so easy to catch were dragonflies and back in those days, nobody I knew wanted to catch one anyway. There was a reason for that.
 
None of the other kids from my neighborhood called them dragonflies. They called them “darning needles” or “sewing needles” because it was rumored that they had the ability to sew your eyes, ears or mouth shut. While I may not have fully believed that story as a lad there was probably a time or two when, if I did happen to see a dragonfly while outdoors, I kept a wary eye on it until it flew out of sight. Over the years, as my outdoor horizons expanded, my interest in dragonflies also grew and I discovered that, like all creatures of the wild, the Good Lord saw to it they came equipped to take care of themselves.  For example, they do have incredibly sharp mandibles, but use them only for capturing prey, not to sew little boys eyes and ears shut.

Truth be told, all dragonflies, like the Whitetail seen here, are no threat to humans.

A sighting of the Bluet Damselfly often harkens one back to summer days gone by.

The Bluet as seen above, was a frequent “visitor” in my early years, especially if I was fishing. It seems like whenever I was wetting a line, they would land on the tip of my fishing pole and be content to stay a while if left undisturbed.    
The Jagged-Edge Saddlebag is so named due to the
tell-tell markings along its thorax.
Despite the delicate look of a dragonfly's gossamer-like wings, they provide it with maneuverability unequaled in the insect world. They possess two pairs of wings, and can operate each wing independently of the others. They can fly forward, backward and even sideways and hover in one spot for an indeterminate amount of time.  This unique trait in the flying insect kingdom is one of the primary reasons they are such skillful and stealthy aerial hunters.   
The dragonfly's bulbous eyes give it outstanding vision.
A dragonfly's field of vision is nearly 360 degrees, with its only blind spot directly behind them.  Their compound eyes consist of 30,000 facets – or “smaller eyes” each of which provides information regarding the dragonfly’s surroundings. Combine their extraordinary vision with their flight skills, and you have a predator that can either intercept or ambush its intended prey in mid-air without slowing down and, thanks to those sharp mandibles, consume it while still on the fly.  

In this instance, the hunter became the prey.
Despite their being skilled predators, likewise the dragonfly is preyed upon by a number creatures including but not limited to fish, birds, mammals, reptiles and spiders. Pictured above is a Black-and-yellow Argiope spider wrapping a Red Skimmer in a silk cocoon for a later meal. Bon Appetit!       

Until Next Time,
Jim & Claudia                                                                               



Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Fluttering Gems of Late Summer

Often mistaken for a Monarch, this is the Viceroy.
It is distinguishable by the arched black line that crosses the hind wing.
It's late summer and fallow fields and meadows are awash with the color of wildflowers. Likewise, roadsides and hedgerows are speckled with the brilliant hues of goldenrod, purple asters, and chicory to name a few.  

While this landscape is aesthetically pleasing to the eye and enjoyed by many, perhaps nothing appreciates those colorful wild blooms more than butterflies. The weather has been nothing short of spectacular and it stands to reason that this is perhaps the greatest time of year for watching a wide variety of butterflies as they flit and flutter from flower to flower, drawing nectar from bloom after colorful bloom. With that in mind, we thought it a great time to share with you some of our favorite butterfly photos.
This is a Pear Crescent, one of the more common smaller
 butterflies, seen here alighting on some goldenrod.
A Question Mark touches down by the side of the road at Genesee County Park and Forest. This species is so named for the silver marking along the base of its rear wings.
A Mourning Cloak absorbs some mid-morning sunshine. Some believe
 its named for its somber color, much like a funeral shawl worn by widows. 
Flower gardens are equally attractive to butterflies this time of year.  We especially enjoy gazing upon our butterfly bush while it's in bloom to see the variety of visitors it attracts.  

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is busy at work pollinating the tiny
individual blossoms of our butterfly bush.
A White Admiral also enjoys visiting our yard.
While butterflies might not be as fast or efficient as bees when it comes to pollinating, they certainly are a pleasing sight to behold.  Plus, when was the last time anyone got stung by one?

Until Next Time,
Jim & Claudia

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Nonmetaphorical Snakes in the Grass

A close-up of the 2nd largest Northern Water Snake I've ever seen.  
I had my first snake encounter as a youngster in the early fifties, before I ever entered kindergarten. Not knowing what a snake was at the time, I received my intro to reptiles courtesy of a Northern Water Snake along the shore of Little Tonawanda Creek. As a result I became fascinated with snakes for a number of years, and while that fascination has waned a great deal, a water snake never fails to arouse my curiosity. 

Last week I was able to relive that very same first experience.  What began as a nature outing with my grandsons in pursuit of frogs, dragonflies, grasshoppers, etc. turned into something else entirely when my youngest grandson yelled, “Snake!”.  We watched them intently for a time and then set off for more exploring.  

The following morning I decided to return to the same spot alone that we had been the day before, this time with camera in hand in the hopes that some picture taking opportunities would arise, and did they ever!   

This is the same snake, its crossband markings quite vivid, with
 alternating dark blotches stretching from its neck all along its back and sides. 
I had taken several photos when I happened to look down and received quite a surprise. Hardly more than a foot way was a second snake and although its head and tail are hidden, it was easily the largest Northern Water Snake I’ve ever seen. It is looped rather than coiled and as is the case with older water snakes, this one’s pattern has all but faded, giving it an all black or dark brown appearance.   
This is the sight that greeted me when I happened to glance down to my right. 

By now I’m both surprised and curious, and I was intent on locating the head of this jumbo water snake. While trying my utmost to keep my feet stationary and perfectly still, and in the process doing a good impersonation of a contortionist, I twisted and turned my torso trying to locate the head of the second snake in the tall grass. I managed to locate the head of the larger snake and, as you can see, there are no vivid markings, its blotched pattern has definitely faded with age. It is massive for its species.


The milky, opaque coating over the eye indicates the snake is getting ready to shed.  
I was puzzled.  Three mornings in a row both snakes were located in the same location well away from their preferred habitat. There was a pond to the north, maybe twenty yards away, and a small, sluggish stream, forty yards to the south. Judging by the size of these water snakes, their habitat provides a readily available menu, one that is vast and varied. Both locations have frogs, fish, crustaceans and other critters that water snakes readily feed on. But instead, both snakes had stayed away from obvious food sources and stayed put in the grassy meadow and always in very close proximity to one another.  

Could this be the reason for the "snakes in the grass"?
There is one possible explanation I can think of. Each year the meadow and its tall grasses serve as a nesting site for dozens of Bob ‘o Links (pictured above) and a few other songbirds that nest on the ground. I can’t help wondering if, come nesting season, this pair of large and aged Northern Water Snakes take up residence in the meadow – at least on a part time basis – in a quest for bird eggs – a reptilian delicacy.  

Until next time
Jim & Claudia

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Spearfishing with Pastor Jeff Bartz

This Mutton Snapper made for excellent table fare. 
(Our camera is on the fritz at the moment so today’s blog post comes from the archives of my mind, reminiscing about a wonderful family outdoor adventure from not so long ago…………….)

It was late March of 2008 and my son-in-law, Jeff Bartz and I were treading water while catching our breath between dives. An Associate Pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Batavia, Jeff and I had earlier been discussing the numerous barracudas we’d been seeing while spearfishing and we agreed that it was probably not a good idea to target one of the toothy critters – there’s no telling how they might react.

We were on a week-long family vacation on the Bahamian Island of Abaco and Jeff and I intended to spend as much time as possible hunting for our dinner. By Bahamian law, spearfishing may only be done with a Hawaiian sling and wearing mask, fins & snorkel – no mechanized devices and no scuba gear.  Spearfishing with a Hawaiian Sling is tricky business. Attempting to spear a barracuda with a sling can be a risky proposition. 

With disposable camera in tow, Sammy Bartz displays a sea biscuit. 
Everyone in the family donned mask, fins & snorkel for this adventure.
Our routine was to rent a boat and motor through the Sea of Abaco and then beyond the barrier island of Man ‘O War Cay. A half to three quarters of a mile out, the sea floor is a vast maze of coral reefs, each of them an adventure in itself. This was the home of colorful fish, sting rays, sea turtles, sharks and much more. But each day we hunted for dinner and our intended quarry was grouper, snapper and lobsters. Here, within the confines of the deepest and largest reefs, those farthest away from shore, the sea is the color of several shades of turquoise. Beyond the outer reefs the water becomes cobalt blue and drops off into abysmal depths. 

Anyway, back to Jeff and the barracuda. I had just surfaced after a dive and was catching my breath when I saw this big, toothy critter just below the surface facing the open water to my left. He didn’t appear to be watching me, but with a barracuda’s eye placement being what it is, one never can tell. One moment it was perfectly still, only its pectoral and ventral fins moving ever so slightly, then, in the next instant a silver flash passed by my head – it was the 5 ft. long shaft of Jeff’s sling and I watched as it hit its intended mark.

Pastor Jeff, displaying his Hawaiian Sling prowess!
Was I surprised? Yes sir! Was the adrenaline flowing? You could say that! The Barracuda immediately went ballistic, heading to the surface, then downward, bouncing off coral heads. This went on for perhaps a full minute and all the while I tried to keep the wounded fish in sight. It finally expired on the bottom in 40 ft. of water, the spear still intact. Filleted and grilled with lemon pepper and almonds, it was delicious and enjoyed by the entire family.
The Bartz family in front of the cemetery at Man 'O War Cay.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Jeff is the Associate Pastor at Grace Baptist Church in my hometown of Batavia, NY.  He and Senior Pastor, Donald Shirk are two amazing men of God, following Christ's beckoning from Matthew 4.19; And He said unto then, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men."  Worship Service is every Sunday at 9:45 am and they would love to have you come hear the Good News.

Until Next Time,
Jim & Claudia

Saturday, July 16, 2016

A Red-tailed Hawk's "Long" Lunch

The Red-tailed Hawk is a familiar site throughout Western NY.
Not far from our home in the town of Batavia is a tract of land consisting of some large fields, hedgerows, a couple of ponds, a small creek and small woodlots. In one of the fields is a pair of aged oak trees which serve as both a perch and look-out post for the resident Red-tail hawk who calls this place home. More often than not, whenever I drive down the road that leads into the area, the Red-tail hawk takes flight as soon the tires of my pickup make contact with the gravel surface.

But this day was different. For starters the hawk wasn’t perched in either of the towering oaks. Instead, it was situated in a much smaller tree alongside the roadway, and literally within a stone’s throw from my vehicle. I stopped the truck, readied the camera and, much to my delight, the hawk stayed put. What’s more, I could see that it wasn’t paying me any mind whatsoever. It was intently staring at something on the ground, almost directly below. 
The bird clearly had something pinned beneath it.
In an instant, the bird "dropped" to the ground and pounced on it's prey. I was about 40 yards away and couldn’t make out what it was so I continued taking photos, focusing solely on the hawk.    

The raptor takes a quick look to see if the coast is clear.
Getting back to the task at hand, the hawk uses its talons to hold
 the quarry in place  and, as I would soon discover......decapitate it.
The meal in question turned out to be a snake, sans head.
My best guess of this shot is the hawk was having a harder time than
expected swallowing the snake.  Even without a head it was probably
still writhing around on it's way down the hatch.  
While I say kudos to the Red-tail, this was not the first time I’ve seen winged predators of various species and sizes make a meal of a snake. I’ve seen birds like Great Blue herons fly off with a snake dangling from its bill and the much smaller Grackle do likewise.  Has ever a creature of the wild been frowned upon with more disdain than the lowly snake?
   
Genesis 3:14 “And the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, Cursed are you more than all cattle, And more than every beast of the field; On your belly you shall go, And dust shall you eat all the days of your life.”

Until next time, 
Jim & Claudia    


Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Much Maligned Snapping Turtle

Cute & cuddly, he's not.
While a good many of nature’s creatures have their share of admirers, there are those which the general public, for the most part, hold in low esteem. But like all of God’s creatures, those same critters held in disdain by many, all have a role to play in the natural order.  The Snapping Turtle is one such creature.

The dark green moss covering this turtle's back
 is proof positive he's a sloooooooow moving fella.
His head is larger than a grown man’s fist, characteristics which speak to his longevity. And no, he isn’t much to look at, but he is important to the environment. In addition to dining on plant and animal matter, he is an aquatic scavenger, cleaning up decaying and rotting flesh from its watery environment. 

The claws of the Snapping Turtles come in handy when excavating a nest
 in gravel and hard ground where they like to deposit their eggs
The Snapping Turtle also has earned a bad rap for eating ducklings. While they do on occasion take unwary birds, to be fair, their own young offspring suffer a high mortality rate. Whereas the adults have few predators to contend with, mink, raccoons, opossum, fox, skunks and crows will readily unearth a Snapping Turtle nest and feast on the eggs.  Last weekend, while hiking atop one of the berms on Tonawanda Wildlife Management Area, we counted no less than a dozen or more nests that had been unearthed, all within a half-mile stretch.  The threat doesn’t end there for the young. Hatchlings are subject to the same predators in addition to herons, bitterns, hawks, owls and fishers just to name a few.      

This turtle uses every inch of his long neck while scanning his surroundings. 
Longer than most people realize, the turtle's neck is also heavily muscled and quick as lightning, able to strike in the blink of an eye. He’s an excellent swimmer and while he may move slowly along the ground. many a would-be Good Samaritan attempting to “help” one across the road has learned the hard way just how fast and how far back they can extend their neck.

Lastly, the Snapping Turtle has no choice but to tough out our long northern winter. It was once believed that all Snapping turtles go into a semi-hibernation called torpor, buried in a layer of mud and silt. While some indeed do spend the winter beneath a layer of muck, telemetric studies have shown some specimens fitted with transmitters to be active beneath the ice – nowhere near as active as in the warmer months, but barely moving about and using minimal oxygen.

For sure the Snapping Turtle is frowned upon by many, yet he has been on the scene since time immemorial and he has endured. He is a touch customer a verse from the Good Book comes to mind.  

Job: 41:1 “Can you draw out Leviathan with a hook or snare his tongue with a line which you lower?”

Until next time,
Jim & Claudia