This spring started out as a beautiful time in nature. As I do each year, I decided to focus on the flowers that seem to be everywhere in the spring and in particular on desert flowers at the Ethel M cactus garden. Even though it was rather early, I started at the end of February, hoping to catch the end of winter flowers and the very beginning of the spring flowers. Things were going along very nicely with lots of new flowers each week until the onset of the COVID–19 virus in the beginning of March. As a result of precautions taken against the virus, the garden was closed and I decided to present what I have already photographed. There were many butterflies and bees, I have included them when I could. Despite the tragic nature of this viral outbreak, spring flowers are still beautiful and I thought they might strike a cheerful note in a sea of gloomy news.
Since I spend a fair amount of time in Santa Clarita in California I thought that I would write some posts on good nature viewing locations near Santa Clarita. One of the nearest and also one of the best places for birdwatching, plants/flowers and hiking is Placerita Canyon. Placerita is an east-west running canyon featuring cool, shaded oak groves, a willow and sycamore-lined seasonal stream and numerous other interesting plant and animal communities. Placerita Canyon State Park encompasses oak woodland, chaparral, and riparian plant communties on the north side of the San Gabriel Mountains southeast of the City of Santa Clarita. The park not only serves to conserve a slice of the wild environment but also endeavors to educate the public on the value of undisturbed flora and fauna through wild animal presentations, nature hikes, and self-guided educational trails. Also, if you continue up the canyon, you can enter the San Gabriel Mountains, another great nature location.
Like many people interested in nature, I have a fairly large set of bird feeders in my back yard. Last year was quite eventful for the feeders, I had several clutches of Gambel’s Quail (Callipepla gambelii) born in the bushes scattered around the yard. Gambel’s Quail are skittish birds, living mostly on the ground, they run for cover at even the hint of a surprise. While they have nested in my yard off and on for several years, last year was the first time they visited the feeders. There is plenty of water, feed and shelter in my backyard and the quail apparently liked what they saw. We had at least 3 clutches and possibly as many as 5–6 with the result of many groups of adult, adolescent and baby quail pretty much all summer. Naturally I took photos, as if I was the proud grandfather. Many of the photos were taken in less than ideal light but gradually they grew more trusting and I managed a few flash captures. I thought the photos would make for a nice post so I organized the best ones to present here.
In October of last year, I had the good fortune to visit the Asa Wright Nature Center and Tobago through Caligo Birding Tours. Trinidad and Tabago are blessed with abundant hummingbirds on both Islands, both at Asa Wright on Trinidad and at the home of Newton George on Tabago. Sometimes there are places with many hummingbirds of just one or two species, but my experience on both islands was both large numbers and a good selection of species, depending to some extent on the time of year that I visited. One of the largest and most beautiful hummingbirds that can be reliably found on both islands in all seasons is the White Necked Jacobin. While I have seen them in smaller numbers in Costa Rica, both sexes were nicely represented at Asa Wright. One of the downsides of having a fair number of both hummingbird numbers and species is the problem of “the little green hummingbird”. By this I mean, small green hummingbirds that look very similar, which usually but not always, can be identified by their limited range and/or your location. In some unfortunate locations which include Trinidad and Tobago, there are several small green hummingbirds that look similar, all in the same place. While this creates some difficulties, close observation can usually resolve ambiguities. I have included both flash and natural photographs and the ISO since I believe flash photography reveals additional aspects of hummingbird colors.
I am not an insect guy (entymologist) when it comes to photography but I am someone interested in ecosystems. I mention this because while I sometimes get good pictures of insects, I may not be as accurate as a true “bug guy” with identification, although I do try. In this post I present bees, butterflies and other insects that I saw in Trinidad. It turns out that the photographic equipment necessary for bird photography is equally good for entymology. In any case I obtained some beautiful photographs of bees, butterflies and dragonflies that I thought I would share in this post. The neotropics are an exceptional location for those interested in ecosystems and the links that connect us all with nature. While this collection might not be as long as some of my posts, the photographs are nonetheless beautiful and I hope pertinent to my readers. Augochloropsis is a genus of brilliant metallic, often blue-green, sweat bees in the family Halictidae. There are at least 140 described species in Augochloropsis. The genus Augochloropsis is restricted to the New World, and the vast majority of species of are found in the tropical and subtropical regions. Augochloropsis are classified as polylectic, a term which indicates that these species are broad generalists that collect pollen from multiple families of plants.
About a year ago I had a good fortune to attend a tour of Costa Rica with a small group of photographers who all used flash photography. While I had used flash for macro and portrait work, I had not up until that time, tried to use flash for bird photography. My fellow travelers were very generous with their time, patiently explaining their choices of equipment and various techniques for getting the best flash photography. I was impressed with the photographs they obtained on the trip and since that time I have acquired a similar setup tailored to my lighter micro 4/3 equipment. What I have learned is that while flash photography can yield impressive results, it requires a certain adaptation of of shooting preferences. Feeders and blinds with feeders are ideal, allowing positioning of bulky equipment in positions with the best light for optimal photography. Flash photography is less well adapted to spontaneous use in unknown locations such as trails and roadsides, although a flash with a monopod can be very useful. The advantages of flash can include fill light for awkward lighting situations or in harsh noon light, decreased noise, more vibrant colors and increased detail. As a very nice side benefit, flash can reduce ISO thus rendering a smaller sensor camera virtually equivalent to a camera with a larger sensor. I thought I would share what I have learned in in this post. Please note that all photographs can be enlarged as is true throughout my blog and I encourage you to enlarge each of the photos.
Very few organisms consume nectar exclusively over their whole life cycle, either supplementing it with other sources, particularly insects (thus overlapping with insectivores) or only consuming it exclusively for a set period. Many species are nectar robbers or nectar thieves, performing no pollination services to a plant while still consuming nectar. Nectar-feeding is widespread among birds, but no species consumes nectar exclusively. Most combine it with insects for a mixed diet. Of particular interest are four lineages of specialized nectar consuming birds in the New World: the Hummingbirds (Trochilidae) and three members of the Tanager (Thraupidae) family; Bananaquits, Flowerpiercers and Honeycreepers. These groups have adapted to permit a nectar-central diet, showing higher activity of digestive enzymes which break down sugars, higher rates of absorption of sugars, and altered kidney function. Birds need the enzyme sucrase in their bodies, in order to digest the sucrose of nectar. And most simply don’t have enough. Scientists think birds that can readily digest sugar, like warblers, have an adaptive advantage. When they fly to the tropics for the colder months, they can tap into sources of sugar that other birds just can’t handle. That sweet tooth, it turns out, is important to their survival.
I have a few photographs that depict flowers found wild in Costa Rica (including the famous Hot Lips or Hookers Lips flower) some photos of butterflies and hummingbirds found on Porterweed and Lantana. One fine early morning on my most recent trip to Costa Rica, we visited a patch of wild Porterweed. This area was alive with small hummingbirds, maths and butterflies. In particular we saw the Rufous-Tailed Hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl), the Violet-Headed Hummingbird (Klais guimeti) and a variety of moths and butterflies. In my estimation, there are no greater nectar producing species than Lantana and Porterweed. Every morning in Las Vegas, I have 5 to 10 hummingbirds waiting to feed at my various lantana beds. With the preferences of hummingbirds in Costa Rica, I plan to plant several patches of Porterweed to enhance my garden. As for the rest of the post, beautiful orchids and unusual plants will hopefully excite and amaze you. As for the butterfly at the top of the post, I found this butterfly at Frog’s Geaven. Nymphidium is a genus in the butterfly family Riodinidae present only in the Neotropical ecozone. Some Nymphidium are obviously secondarily transformed by mimicry, otherwise the almost exclusive colors are brown and white either of which being now and then preponderant.
The Hotel Bougainvillea is a relatively small, privately owned hotel in a suburb of San José in Santo Domingo near Santa Rosa in the Herdia province popular as a starting point for nature tours in Costa Rica. Part of the reason making this a popular choice is the affordable prices but the real selling point of the hotel is the 10 acre garden. It has been my experience that the most beautiful, varied and interesting gardens are created by a collector. While I never met the owner(s), this is truly a world class garden, with sculpture, mature local and special rare species from the surrounding countries and even an amazing rock collection. The rooms are typical of a Motel 6 but the restaurant is good, especially with local favorites and it has air conditioning. The Costa Rica National Gardening Association has given them an award as the best garden in Costa Rica. In this garden you can find small samples of the country’s crops, such as coffee, cocoa, bananas, pineapple and papaya. They have 22 types of bromeliads, 51 different orchids, 28 types of heliconia and 29 types of lilies among many other plants. Because it was winter, I only got to see a fraction of the garden in bloom but trust me, this is a garden you will want to visit.
I thought I would add a post on the trees of Costa Rica since there are so many beautiful and unusual specimens. This trip, I visited during the winter or dry season, so many of the plants were without leaves or flowers. Nonetheless, there were many fascinating examples of trees that we in North America rarely get to see. I have roughly divided them into fruit trees, large trees and palm and palm-like trees. Cassia grandis, seen above, is one of several species called pink shower tree, and known as carao in Spanish. It is a flowering plant in the family Fabaceae, native to the neotropics, that grows up to 98 feet (30 m). The species is distributed from southern México, to Venezuela and Ecuador. It grows in forests and open fields at lower elevations, and is known to be planted as an ornamental. In at least Costa Rica, its pods are stewed into a molasses-like syrup, taken as a sweetener and for its nutritional and medicinal effects, called Jarabe (or Miel) de Carao.