Northern Saw-whet Owl- photo by Judy Semroc
Near the main entrance to the beach front trail, a Northern Saw-whet Owl was found resting in a tree. These micro-owls, not much larger than a man's fist, are known for daytime napping in grapevine tangles. They can be extremely difficult to locate- even when you know where to look! But once they are found, they seem tolerate the annoying human presence with aplomb.
After sufficient gawking at the owl, our group proceeded to the grass covered sand dunes just beyond the beach. We were in search of warblers and rare sparrows, but we were not above looking at any common species either. While the rest of the group focused on the Eastern Bluebirds, Swamp Sparrows, and a couple of Nashville Warblers, I became more interested in what they were feeding on.
The predominate grass, with arching, fuzzy seed heads, is the state listed Coastal Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium littorale. Any disturbance of the stems sent up a puff of airborne midges- the perfect migrating warbler fuel. As swirling insects were rising with the sunlight and warming temperatures, birds began feeding mid-air.
Want birds? Find their food source. And while botany does not drive midge production, it was certainly providing habitat for them.
Often called "Muffleheads" due to the feathery antennae on the males, these nearly invisible fliers are fascinating if you take a closer look!
Most species of Chironomid midges should be considered beneficials- and do no harm- other than the annoyance they create for some homeowners. They are often listed as bio-indicators, and a measure of a healthy ecosystem, but most of the interesting reading on the fuzzy headed bird-food is produced by agencies promoting means for killing them. I would think you might use ecological controls, like promoting Eastern Bluebirds as a means to control them. However, most publications promote electrocution (bug zappers), poisoning the aquatic nymphs or spraying the adults without impunity.
Kind of makes it hard for a warbler to eek out a living, doesn't it?
Two of the most amazing field trip leaders, Judy Semroc and Larry Rosche clearly understand the connection between nature's gift of insects and our beloved birds. It is not a matter of taking the good with the bad, but rather understanding nature is many things... and beauty can be found even in the life-cycle of a fuzzy-headed midge.