Archives For Carol Freeman

Damselflies 101

Carol Freeman —  September 6, 2014 — 4 Comments

The Chicago Botanic Garden is a great place to find damselflies. You can find them in every location here, and different locations will often yield different species.

PHOTO: Rare form of male Eastern Forktail damselfly.

This is the rare form of the male eastern forktail damselfly. You can see what looks like an exclamation point on its back, similar to the fragile forktail damselfly. ©Carol Freeman

For example, you might find stream bluets along the river and orange bluets hanging out on the lily pads. Most species measure about an inch in length and can be easily overlooked, but when you take time to slow down and search for these tiny gems, you will be rewarded with finding some of nature’s most beautiful hunters. Indeed, these tiny insects are fierce hunters—but don’t worry, as they neither bite nor sting humans. Their preferred food choice is other, smaller insects (including mosquitoes).

The main differences between dragonflies and damselflies are their size and wing positions. Damselflies, in general, are smaller, and hold their wings over their abdomens. Dragonflies tend to be larger, with a heavier body, and hold their wings out to the side.

The most common species around here is the eastern forktail damselfly. Identifying them can be tricky, as they come in several different varieties! The males and females look very different from each other, and the females change color as they age.

PHOTO: Male Eastern Forktail damselfly.

This is the most common coloring for the adult male eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis). Note the blue on the end of the abdomen. ©Carol Freeman

PHOTO: Immature female Eastern Forktail damselfly.

This is a young female eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis). She will turn a light, powdery blue as she ages. ©Carol Freeman

PHOTO: Female Eastern Forktail damselfly.

This is the most common coloring of the adult female eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis). ©Carol Freeman

 

PHOTO: Male Fragile Forktail damselfly.

This is an adult male fragile forktail (Ischnura posita) — similar to the rare form of the eastern forktail. Keep your eyes open for this one, as they often fly near the eastern forktails. ©Carol Freeman

I like to get out early in the morning. The light is low, there is often dew, and the insects move a bit more slowly until they warm up. One of my favorite places in the Garden to photograph damselflies is in the Dixon Prairie. They like to hang out on the grasses there. Walking slowly on the path next to the plants, you will see what look like tiny flying sticks. Damselflies will often congregate in one area and, if disturbed, sometimes land just a short distance away. I like to use my 105mm or 200mm macro lenses to photograph these beauties. They will fly until the first really hard frost. There are dozens of species native to this area—all of them beautiful and fierce hunters. 

PHOTO: An adult female Eastern Forktail damselfly eating another insect.

Here is an adult female eastern forktail damselfly with her catch of the day. ©Carol Freeman


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Bird Report

Carol Freeman —  May 9, 2014 — 2 Comments

There was a nice assortment of birds at the Garden this morning!

White-crowned sparrows were the most abundant, and could be seen in almost every location. I saw a few warblers scattered about, but none in any large numbers. My best spot for finding birds was along the water in the woodland walk area of the Sensory Garden. I saw black-and-white warblers, Nashville warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, gray catbirds, warbling vireos, palm warblers, flycatchers, and an ovenbird.

Southerly winds are expected for the next two days, which should bring in a LOT more birds. Now is the time to get out your binoculars and cameras and see some of these amazing birds for yourself! In a few short weeks they will be gone.

PHOTO: Nashville warbler.

I saw a few Nashville warblers in the newly budding flowering trees. ©Carol Freeman

 

PHOTO: Black-and-white warbler.

Black-and-white warblers can often be seen hopping up and down tree branches, looking for insects. ©Carol Freeman

 

PHOTO: Gray catbird.

Gray catbird calls really do sound like cats! These robin-sized birds are fairly easy to find. ©Carol Freeman

 

PHOTO: White-crowned sparrow.

I saw white-crowned sparrows in almost every location of the Garden. They like to forage in the leaf litter. ©Carol Freeman

 

PHOTO: Least flycatcher.

This is most likely a least flycatcher. These guys can be hard to identify. They dart out, grab an insect, then land. ©Carol Freeman

 

PHOTO: Ovenbird.

The ovenbird is a thrush-like warbler. They like to forage on the ground. I find them to be shy birds, often flying off as soon as they see me. ©Carol Freeman

 

PHOTO: Warbling vireo.

These guys love to sing! You can often find warbling vireos by following their sweet song. ©Carol Freeman

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

After such a long, cold winter, I am especially looking forward to the gifts that migration brings.

Each day is a present just waiting to be opened. Here in Illinois, we can see more than 400 different bird species. Some are local residents, but most are just passing through. Starting in March and lasting through June, millions of birds will be heading north through Illinois to their breeding grounds.

PHOTO: American Coot.

These guys (American coot) are fun to watch. Photo ©Carol Freeman

First to move through are the ducks, then blackbirds, kinglets, shorebirds, herons, egrets, and finally the big show, warblers! If you don’t know what warblers are, I suggest you look them up; after you see your first one in the wild, you will be hooked. These tiny gems are a wonder to behold. I saw my first warbler of the year yesterday, a yellow-rumped warbler (one of the most common of the species). I’ve seen them hundreds of times, yet I was just as thrilled yesterday as I was the first time I saw one. I guess I’m hooked.

PHOTO: Yellow-rumped warbler.

The first warbler of the year—always a thrill. Photo ©Carol Freeman

PHOTO: Goldfinches cover a set of 3 feeders at the Garden.

The feeders were a blur of activity, with a goldfinch at every spot. Photo ©Carol Freeman

The Chicago Botanic Garden is a hot spot for migrant activity. With the advantage of water, woods, and prairie, it is an attractive spot for a large variety of birds. I’ve seen more than 200 species of birds at the Garden, and just this past week I was treated to migrating red-breasted mergansers, coots, and grebes. Plus, it was fun to see the resident birds returning from their winter in warmer climates, like grackles, red-winged blackbirds, and great blue herons. The goldfinches were also getting their breeding colors back after dulling down for the winter. Spring may be slow to get going this year, but the garden is full of colorful birds!

A fun way to spend the day is to grab a field guide, a pair of binoculars, or a camera, and see how many different species you can find and identify. There is even a ledger at the front desk to record your finds. If you need help, you can sign up for a bird walk and learn from an expert.

PHOTO: The iridescent feathers of a common grackle bathing in a puddle.

Wow, just look at the colors of this common grackle in the sun! Photo ©Carol Freeman


PHOTO: A ruffled, adolescent pied-billed grebe floats on the water.

There were lots of these cute little grebes all around the garden. Photo @Carol Freeman

Migration is one of the greatest miracles on Earth, and is here for all of us to enjoy.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Fall Migration is Here!

Many species we don't normally see are moving through our area

Carol Freeman —  September 14, 2013 — 1 Comment

Twice a year we are blessed with the migration of birds, butterflies, moths, and dragonflies. Many species that we don’t normally see (or don’t see in large numbers) are now moving through the Chicago area. Each day is a mystery as to what I might come across.

These guys were moving through the woods, stopping to eat berries. ©Carol Freeman

These guys were moving through the woods, stopping to eat berries.
©Carol Freeman

Today I chose to head over to McDonald Woods. Before I could even get to the path, I was greeted by red-eyed vireos. I stayed there and watched them for some time. One thing I have learned is to photograph birds wherever I see them, and to avoid the impulse to assume I’ll find more birds, or better birds, elsewhere. Just because the birds are hopping here doesn’t mean they will be hopping everywhere: best to take advantage of the birds wherever they are, even if it’s just the parking lot.

Only when the activity slowed did I head into the woods to see what else might be there. Right away, I saw some movement up high. Yep, warblers. I could tell by the flash of the tail feathers that these were redstarts. My instinct is to try to focus on any bird that moves. However, another thing I have learned is to resist the urge to photograph birds up high and backlit. The best photos are taken at eye-level. I look for movement and listen for bird calls to help me find a likely place to get some good photos. When I do, I relax and wait. Yes, wait. It might take 15 or 20 minutes for the birds to filter down. It is tempting to try to find the birds, or to follow them, but all that tends to do is send the birds higher up.

I was ready when this little one came back to it's favorite perch. ©Carol Freeman

I was ready when this little one came back to its favorite perch.
©Carol Freeman

After just a few minutes, I see a young warbler hopping in the lower branches. I get a few shots before it takes off. Then, in zooms a hummingbird. The nice thing about hummingbirds is that they will often come back to the same perch over and over again. So I slowly move toward where this little one is sitting. Just as I get close, it takes off. So I position myself with a good view of the perch, and wait. Yes, there is that word again. Trust me, the “wait” will be worth it! Soon the hummingbird is back, and yes, it lands right on the same perch, and I’m able to get some really nice shots. Learning about the habits of birds comes in handy. If I did not know that the hummingbird would be back, I would not have been ready to take the photo when it got there. One way to learn about the habits of birds is to hang out and chat with birders. I like to go on bird walks with them and read bird books when I can.

When I’m waiting for warblers and other migrants, I like to practice my photography skills on the more common and perhaps slower-moving birds. It’s a way to make sure that my camera is set properly, and it helps me get comfortable with my equipment choices for the day. If I can’t take an amazing photo of a common bird, it is unlikely that I will take an amazing shot of a tiny, quick-moving rarity. Practice is key! For bird photography, I like to use my 80-400mm lens, but anything over 200mm will work. I keep my shutter speed at 1/400 of a second or faster. Sometimes that means upping my ISO to get the faster shutter speed. Otherwise these little birds will be big blurs.

What a treat to see so many of these buzzing around the garden today.  ©Carol Freeman

What a treat to see so many hawk moths (also called sphinx moths) buzzing around the garden today.
©Carol Freeman

I have to keep an open mind. Even though I might really want to photograph a yellow-winged warbler, what I might get instead is a blue jay, or not even a bird at all. Sometimes my best “bird” shot of the day is a butterfly. Or like today, I was treated to dozens of hawk moths! I’ve never seen so many in one spot, and what amazed me most was how many people walked right past them! They were so focused on something else, they missed what I thought was the coolest migrant of the day. I can’t tell you how many times I went out with one intention and came back with shots of something I could have never predicted—all because I kept an open mind to all the wonders that are out there to discover. There will be a stream of migrants visiting Chicago through November, and I hope you can get out and enjoy the amazing wonders that the autumn migration will bring right to you.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Jewels of the Air

Carol Freeman —  June 17, 2013 — 4 Comments

Hummingbirds zip here and there so quickly that I’m not always sure if I see what I think I see. Often, I hear the low buzz of their wings before I actually see them. Zip, zip, zip, there they go. Can I focus in time? Is my shutter speed fast enough? These are just a few of the challenges of photographing these beautiful “jewels of the air.”

PHOTO: Hummingbird hovering near red salvia.

I found this hummingbird in the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden, visiting a red salvia.
©Carol Freeman

If you see one of these gems, it is virtually guaranteed to be the ruby-throated hummingbird, the sole breeding hummingbird of the eastern United States. They winter in Central America, and spend the summers in North America. There are often breeding pairs here at the Chicago Botanic Garden. You can see them feeding if you know where to look.

PHOTO: Hummingbird on a branch.

This guy was zipping around McDonald Woods, but stopped for a few seconds so I could get this shot.
©Carol Freeman

I always check their favorite flowers: any color of trumpet-shaped flowers, red and orange flowers, and even flowering trees. I’ve seen them regularly in three places in the Garden.

One area is in and around the English Walled Garden. You can stand on the main sidewalk and watch them as they visit the flowers and then rest on one of the small trees. They will often visit the same patch of flowers over and over again and then go back to the same perch, giving you a perfect chance to snap a few photos. I use at least a 200mm lens and prefer my 300mm lens for best results. I set my camera to f8, 1/1000 of a second, for sharp shots with just a touch of wing blur. I use manual focus and take lots of photos. I’d say I get one good photo for every 15 or 20 I take! So keep at it! These are tricky birds to get in the air.

Another good place to find hummingbirds is around the Sensory and Enabling Gardens. It’s a large area, but walk around and look for the colorful flowers. There is a good chance a hummingbird will be nearby.

PHOTO: Hummingbird gathering nectar.

This hummingbird was busy sipping nectar from the flowers outside of the Bulb Garden.
©Carol Freeman

The third place where I often see them in late summer is in the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden. There is a nice patch of bright red salvia near the little pond, which seems to be a favorite hangout for hummingbirds. You can just park yourself a few feet away from the flowers, wait 15 minutes or so, and most likely a hummingbird will stop by!

But be ready, as you just might have a close encounter with a hummingbird almost anywhere in the Garden. I’ve seen them by the Bulb Garden, the Fruit & Vegetable Garden, McDonald Woods, the Native Plant Garden, and even out in the Prairie! It’s always a thrill and a joy to see these amazing birds any day, and if I happen to get a photo, well that’s just the icing on the cake.

PHOTO: Hummingbird on salvia.

This gal was taking a short rest in the Enabling Garden.
©Carol Freeman


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org