Mountain Mothing

It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper meaning.

~ Vincent van Gogh

If Van Gogh is correct, then I am ripe and have found deeper meaning, at least as far as mothing is concerned. On the final night of National Moth Week, 2015, I set up the moth light on a farm gate at my parents’ home in the mountains of southwest Virginia. The habitat is very different from where I live. Besides being near the mountains and a river running out back, there is a lot more open ground than I have in my Chatham County woods. In fact, it is mostly open pasture that Dad mows for hay twice each summer. I set the UV light and sheet up along a line of trees that separates their lawn from the pasture. I really wasn’t expecting the kind of diversity I saw in my wooded yard, but wasn’t really sure what might attend the moth party.

Mayfly dun

Mayfly (click photos to enlarge)

As I had anticipated, the nearby river provided plenty of insects that spend part (or most) of their lives in the river. Several Caddisflies and numerous white Mayflies were early arrivals at the party. I was hoping for some Dobsonflies, but they were no-shows. The first couple of visits to the light showed that I was probably correct – the moth diversity, at least of those large enough for me to even attempt to identify, was much less than in the woods at home. But, there were some beetles and lots of tiny flies, and what looked like very small wasps.

Double-banded Grass Veneer, Crambus agitatellus

Double-banded Grass-veneer – Crambus agitatellus

There were also plenty of small moths, some of which turned out to be quite beautiful  (or strange, depending on your perspective I suppose) when you take a closer look. Not surprisingly, almost all the ones I could identify are found primarily in grassy habitats, and their larvae feed on grasses. The name of one group reflects that – the Grass-veneer moths. I suppose the veneer part of the name comes from their habit of tightly clinging to grasses (usually the underside) during the day, making them tough to find unless you flush them out as you walk.

Elegant Grass-veneer - Microcrambus elegans

Elegant Grass-veneer – Microcrambus elegans

One Elegant Grass-veneer perched on my tripod next to one of the small bolts. That bolt is probably less than a half inch across so that gives you some idea of the small size of this individual. They are also distinctive in that this group tends to have long labial pals, giving them a snout-like appearance. The palps presumably function as sensory receptors of some sort.

Below are a few other species I was able to tentatively identify by flipping through my field guide and online resources. As always, any confirmations or corrections are welcome as this beginning moth-er finds it challenging.

Snowy Urola - Urola nivalis

Snowy Urola – Urola nivalis

Clover Looper - Caenurgina crassiuscula

Clover Looper – Caenurgina crassiuscula

Common Gray - Anavitrinella pampinaria?

Common Gray – Anavitrinella pampinaria?

Delicate Cycnia (Cycnia tenera)

Delicate Cycnia – Cycnia tenera  – with a hitchhiker (a small midge perhaps?)

On my last check of the sheet that night, there was a new grou of moths represented – the Tiger Moths. There were at least 6 of these boldly pattered, medium-sized moths on the sheet. I recognized the group but when I started to try to identify to species i was amazed at how similar some of them are. So much so that Bug Guide let me off the hook in trying to nail down a species identification with this statement about the difficulty of identifying some related species in this group…The only full-proof method is dissection and examination of genitalia.

Nais Tiger Moth - Apantesis nais ?

Nais Tiger Moth – Apantesis nais ?

Tiger Moth - Apantesis sp.

Nais Tiger Moth – Apantesis nais – showing underwings that help in identification

Well, then, Vincent, time to call it a night I suppose. I am not sure I am that ripe or looking for that deep of a meaning quite yet.

Summer Peep

What we see is mainly what we look for.  

~Anonymous

One morning when I walked out the front door I noticed a surprise visitor clinging to the edge of the tadpole-rearing container I have on the porch.

Spring Peeper

Spring Peeper (click photos to enlarge)

It was an adult Spring Peeper, Pseudacris crucifer. As I reported on earlier this year, Spring Peepers were common out front and were calling almost every night. But once we get into late spring, they stop calling and seem to vanish. So, seeing one in the heat of summer is a treat.

Spring Peeper 2

Characteristic dark cross on the back of a Spring Peeper

The species name, crucifer, is Latin for cross bearing, and refers to the dark X-like marking typically found on the dorsal surface of most peepers. This one was probably a female as it was about 1.5 inches in total length (males are smaller, usually less than an inch).

Toe pads

Spring Peepers have prominent toe pads

The frog quickly moved from the edge of the plastic container (containing a few Cope’s Gray Treefrog tadpoles I am observing) and jumped into a nearby shrub. I looked closely at those feet and legs, capable of propelling this little frog such a considerable distance, and allowing it to grab any leaf, twig, or even vertical surface it lands on. At the tip of each digit are the round toe pads characteristic of treefrogs. The peepers’ legs don’t look much different to me than most other frogs, but it seems able to jump quite a distance given its small size. So, I started searching online and in my references and found an interesting tidbit reported by a famous Smithsonian herpetologist, A. Stanley Rand, in 1952. He observed the relative jumping abilities of six species of adult frogs and toads and found that Spring Peepers jumped an average of 17.5 inches per jump under his study conditions. This represented an impressive relative jumping distance (distance jumped/body length) of 17.9. This was good enough for second place in the competition. Species falling behind the Spring Peeper in the study were Fowler’s Toads, Bullfrogs, Green Frogs, and Northern Leopard Frogs. The clear winner was the Northern Cricket Frog, another small frog with an average jumping distance of 33.75 inches and a relative jumping distance of 36.2.

Spring Peeper head

Determination can be seen in the eye of the peeper

Looking into the peeper’s eyes, I can’t help but wonder if it is pondering this second place finish, and thinking of ways to even the score.

Mothing

I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.

~Vincent Van Gogh

This week is National Moth Week, an annual celebration of the incredibly diverse and beautiful world of moths. Wednesday was a busy day out in the yard, testing some different diffusion materials for my twin lites and spending a crazy amount of time photographing the Eastern Dobsonfly I discovered resting on a tree branch. In researching the dobsonfly, I read that they are often attracted to lights at night, so it reminded me of the need to go ahead and inaugurate my new moth light. Yep, you know you are a nature nerd when you have a special light for attracting moths and other night-flying insects. The light is an ultraviolet light, since it seems, for reasons no one is quite sure about, that moths are very attracted to UV light.

moth light set up

Moth light set up (click photos to enlarge)

The set up is simple: I stretched a cotton sheet between two step ladders (most people hang a line between two trees), clamped the sheet to the ladders, hung the light on a tripod handle, and placed the tripod in front of the sheet. I then went inside and checked on the sheet periodically over the next couple of hours.

moth sheet

The moth light and sheet in action

As I expected, when I went out to check, there were an incredible number of insects on the sheet. There were two male Eastern Dobsonflies, maybe one being the same guy I photographed earlier in daylight. Then there were twenty or more decent-sized moths, the largest having about a two inch wing span. But for every moth over a half inch in size, there were probably twenty or more smaller ones. It is no wonder. There are over 2600 recognized species of moths in North Carolina, well over 15 times the number of butterflies in our state. And many of that number are very small in size, making them more difficult (for me at least) to identify. I learned a few things from those few hours of moth-watching: there are a lot of moths and a lot of different species in these woods; photographs on a moth sheet are not the most natural-looking photos; I can spend hours trying to identify moths and still not figure them all out. Luckily, there are now many excellent resources for moth-ers. The ones I found most useful for this region are:

Peterson Field Guide to Northeastern North America, David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie; North Carolina and Virginia Moth Photos (part of Will Cook’s excellent Carolina Nature web site); Moths of North Carolina (part of the excellent series of web sites hosted by NC State Parks and the NC Natural Heritage Program); Bug Guide; and the North American Moth Photographer’s Group.

The field guide has a series of moth silhouettes that can help beginners get to major groups of moths to begin the search. Once you find something similar, you can use the various web sites to help narrow it down. I am amazed at how variable some of the species can be. But, it is a whole new world out there, and these critters are all playing various important roles in the ecosystem, from devouring the leaves and flowers of many plants, to pollinating many of our flowers, to providing food for many other species from insects and spiders to birds and bats. And many are visually stunning, so it is a pleasure to discover them just outside your door. You don’t need specialized equipment to enjoy the world of the night, just the motivation to move away from whatever screen occupies your thoughts and open the door. Look around the porch light, your windows, or simply shine a flashlight amongst your plants and you can enjoy the magical world of moths.

Here are a just a few of the species that showed up at the moth light (confirmations and/or assistance with identifications are welcome):

Brown Panopoda - Panopoda carneicosta

Brown Panopoda – Panopoda carneicosta

Hypagyrtis esther – Esther Moth

Esther Moth – Hypagyrtis esther

Polygrammate hebraeicum - The Hebrew on left; Iridopsis larvaria

The Hebrew – Polygrammate hebraeicum (left; Bent Line Gray – Iridopsis larvaria (right)

Red-fringed Emerald, Nemoria bistriaria

Red-fringed Emerald – Nemoria bistriari

Tulip-tree Beauty - Epimecis hortaria

Tulip-tree Beauty – Epimecis hortaria

Splendid Palpita Moth - Palpita magniferalis ???

Tentatively identified as Splendid Palpita Moth – Palpita magniferalis

Straight-lined Plagodis Moth - Plagodis phlogosaria??

Tentatively identified as Straight-lined Plagodis Moth – Plagodis phlogosaria

Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth, Lithacodes fasciola

Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth, Lithacodes fasciola. Several of the lug moths have the strange habit of pointing their abdomen skyward when at rest.

Rosy Maple Moth

One of my favorite woodland moths, a Rosy Maple Moth – Dryocampa rubicunda

Pink-striped Oakworm Moth - Anisota virginiensis - female

Pink-striped Oakworm Moth – Anisota virginiensis. This female is a little over an inch long and is surrounded by some of the tiny moths I have yet to try to identify.

Smaller Parasa, Parasa chloris

One of the slug moths, the Smaller Parasa, Parasa chloris, on a nearby window screen.

Unidentified - perhaps Genus Acronicta - Dagger Moths???

Unidentified – perhaps Genus Acronicta – a Dagger Moth

In addition to the many moths, a few other critters were attracted to the light:

Cixiid Planthopper

Never seen one of these before, a species of Cixiid Planthopper (I think)

Dobsonfly on moth sheet

One of the two Eastern Dobsonflies that showed up (both males)

Pine Tree Spurthroat Grasshopper - Melanoplus punctulatus - male

A striking grasshopper, the Pine Tree Spurthroat Grasshopper – Melanoplus punctulatus – male

Jaws with Wings

What on earth is this thing? It’s huge! It has gigantic wings! It has massive… ANTLERS coming off its face! Has someone had a nightmare that’s come to life or what?

~Joseph Jameson-Gould on dobsonflies from his blog, Real Monstrosities 

Dobsonfly male

Adult male Eastern Dobsonfly (click photos to enlarge)

On my daily wander in the yard yesterday, I happened to look up at the right moment and was surprised to find something that would end up occupying me for the next hour – an Eastern Dobsonfly, Corydalus cornutus. It blended in surprisingly well, given its huge size (this guy was a little over 4 inches in total length). It was in the shade, along one of the branches of a Redbud tree about ten feet off the ground. I ran and grabbed my camera and a tall stepladder to try to get a few images.

Dobsonfly male head with my finger for scale

Eastern Dobsonfly male head with my finger tip for scale

The large, sickle-shaped mandibles of the male are over an inch long and look like they could put a real hurt on you, but they are totally harmless. The females and larvae (known as Hellgrammites) can give a painful bite, but the males’ tusks cannot be closed hard enough to inflict pain. Males use them during the mating ritual (they lay them across the wings of the female. perpendicular to the axis of her wings) and they are presumably also used in jousting matches with other males. Seabrooke Leckie, a naturalist/writer (and one of my inspirations for why I finally started blogging) describes the mating ritual in one of her posts.

Dobsonfly male head 3

Eastern Dobsonfly close up of head

These really are impressive-looking creatures, especially the males, so I strained at getting close enough for photos while hanging off the stepladder, sweat pouring down over my glasses in the tropical climate we have been having this week. This is the only species of dobsonfly in the eastern United States, with three other species in the west. There has been a recent discovery in China of what is thought to be the largest known aquatic insect alive today, a giant dobsonfly, with a wingspan of eight inches!

Dobsonfly wings

The wings have a dense network of intersecting veins

Speaking of the wings, they are huge as well, and are folded over the back when at rest. When viewed up close, they have a prominent network of ridged veins and are speckled with light and dark spots. After standing on the ladder for almost an hour, I realized I needed to finish some of the errands on my list, so I left the beast in the tree, hoping it would be there on my return.

Dobsonfly male head 1

Dobsonflies are not cooperative photography models

About an hour later when I returned, the giant insect had not moved. I decided to try to get it down off the branch for some easier, and, hopefully, better photos. Turns out that dobsonfly-wrangling is not an easy task. It did not want to let go of its branch. As I gently tried to coax it onto a broken branch I had in hand, it spread its impressive wings and fluttered to the ground. I got off the ladder and let it grab onto the twig. It is such a large insect that I had to hold it at arm’s length to try to fit it all into the frame for my 100mm macro (and I usually still didn’t manage it). It showed some fearsome behavior as I tried to get it onto a white background for a photo, rearing back its head, opening those jaws widely, thrashing back and forth, and flapping its impressive wings. My brain kept repeating…it can’t hurt you, it can’t hurt you.

Dobsonfly male on white background

One last image before it took off

I finally just placed the stick down on the white background and fired a couple of shots. The subject was irritated with me now and even sprayed out some foul-smelling yellow droplets onto the white background as I tried to position the branch for the photos. He had had enough for one day, and finally spread his wings and flew off, circling around me, and landing on my back! Now my brain was having trouble repeating…he can’t hurt you, he can’t hurt you, and was sneaking in…it’s going to bite you, it’s going to bite you, get it off your back!! I reached around and brushed him off, and off he went, into the trees. Funny how some things can just override what you know to be true.

This guy probably spent his larva stage (which can be up to three years) in the rocky substrates of the nearby Haw River. In contrast, the adult stage lasts only a few days, long enough to find a mate and reproduce. They are attracted to lights at night, so perhaps I will see him again when I put out my moth light this week.

 

Pollinator Peril

In summer the empire of insects spreads.

~Adam Zagajewski

Last week I noticed a medium-sized robber fly noisily flitting about the garden. It landed on a cedar twig on the garden fence and I leaned in for a closer look.

Promachus bastardii

Robber Fly with distinctive terminal tufts (click photos to enlarge)

It was distinctive in the bright white patch near the tail tip, something I noticed from a few feet away. As I leaned in I could see the white was actually a pair of tufts of “hairs”. I figured this might be an easy one to identify so off I went for a look in Bug Guide. Sure enough, the white tufts are diagnostic of a couple of species. After reading more about the ranges and other characteristics, I decided this was a male Promachus bastardii.

Promachus bastardii tail

Promachus bastardii abdomen

Males of this species are characterized by white tufts of hairs along the edges of the abdominal segments, black on the dorsal surface of the abdomen, and the distinctive white tufts at the tip of the abdomen.

Promachus bastardii head

Promachus bastardii head and thorax

Robber flies have several features that set them apart from other flies…large size; eyes set wide apart for better depth perception; the hairy face or the mustache of bristles called the mystax (theorized to protect the eyes during struggles with large prey); the arching thorax containing superior flight muscles (an advantage for rapid lift and flight to snag fast-flying prey out of the air); a sharp beak, partially hidden by the mystax, which is used to stab their victims, injecting toxins and digestive fluids, which allow the predator to kill the prey and suck the juices out; and long, spiky legs with what look like talons at the tips for catching and holding their prey. This is one of the so-called Giant Robber Flies, due to the group’s large size. This species is actually one of the medium-large ones in the group, and this male (which is smaller than a female) was a little over an inch in total length. I found only one reference to a common name for this species, Bee Killer, for their habit of preying on various species of Hymenoptera. The scientific name immediately catches your attention, and translates to “the bastard’s champion”. Since the species was named in 1838, it is probably lost as to the reason, but I am curious. Perhaps it was named by a fan of bees.

Promachus bastardii 1

Bee Killer with prey, a bumblebee

A few days later while strolling in the yard, camera in hand, I heard a loud buzzing noise behind me and turned to find the same species of Robber Fly (perhaps the same individual male) subduing a prey item, a small species of bumblebee. These bees are common at my wildflowers, especially the Rosinweed (Silphium sp.) that is blooming now along the driveway. The fly had already stuck its beak into the bee, which soon quit struggling.

Promachus bastardii 2

Bee Killer is aptly named

Watching this drama unfold, I admired the strength and apparent agility that is needed to catch and subdue this type of prey. And I was thankful this guy is not two feet long…few creatures in these woods would be safe from such a aerial predator.

ANOTHER POLLINATOR PREDATOR…

Tiger Swallowtail in spider web

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail in spider web

After writing this post, I found another peril for pollinators in this jungle of a yard. An orb weaver spider had strung a giant web across a main pathway through the yard and snagged one of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies that have been feeding on the Joe-Pye Weed that is now blooming. A jungle indeed.

Here’s Looking at You

An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.

~Martin Buber

I went out the other day to grab one of the hummingbird feeders for a refill and a slight movement caught my eye. It was a bizarre-looking jumping spider on the metal bracket that held the feeder.

Phidippus putnami - Jumping Spider 1

A large furry jumping spider caught my eye (click photos to enlarge)

What struck me about this one was how hairy it was and the way it moved. As I watched, it did what many jumpers do when you get close – it turned and faced me, apparently looking back at me.

Phidippus putnami - Jumping Spider

The dorsal pattern makes me think it is Phidippus putnami

Although I wanted to photograph it from the front to try to catch those eyes, I figured I needed a picture of the dorsal surface in order to identify it. Later, as I searched Bug Guide, I realized this one was a tough one as there are many jumpers with similar markings. I finally settled on it being a male Phidippus putnami (referred to as Putnum’s Jumper by one reference). Now that we have that detail taken care of, let’s look at those eyes.

jumping spider eyes

Looking at one side of the spider’s head showing half of its eight eyes

Jumping spiders are in the family, Salticidae. All members of this family have four pairs of eyes, with one pair (the central ones when viewed from the front), being particularly large. These are known as the Anterior Median eyes. Studies have shown that the different eyes have different functions. The smaller, posterior eyes, have relatively poor vision and probably serve to provide light and dark reception as well as to detect movement. They also provide the spider with a 360 degree view of its world. The Anterior Lateral eyes seem to provide some visual details but may serve primarily to alert the spider to looming threats (the “looming” response is when the spider retreats rapidly as something approaches it, a safety response). The Anterior Median eyes have the best vision, but a very narrow field of view. The eye lenses are attached to the carapace and therefore cannot be moved like our eyes. So, in order to look around and focus on something, the spider either must move its body, or, if it is something just off to the side a little, small muscles can move the retina while the lens stays fixed.

Phidippus putnami - close up of eyes

The large middle eyes (anterior median eyes} have the sharpest vison

You can sometimes look into those large eyes of a jumping spider and see them change color as it moves the retina around. You will know when it is looking directly at you, those eyes will appear their darkest.

Phidippus putnami - Jumping Spider 2

Putnum’s Jumper checking out my camera and flash…”should I jump on that or not?”

This little guy was fascinating to watch. He was very alert and moved fairly quickly through the vegetation. He seemed to like to climb anything vertical in his path so I put a rock in his way at one point to try to get a clearer picture. He went up on the tip and looked around, giving me a chance at the two images above. I also noticed he would turn, raise his pedipalps (those things that look like short legs with swollen tips under his eyes) and then jump toward some other noticeable point in his environment. I really wanted to try to get a photo of him jumping, so I moved the rock in front of him a few times as he moved across the yard, waiting until I saw him raise his pedipalps, and then firing the camera.

Phidippus putnami - Jumping Spider leaping

All my camera caught was the safety line as the spider jumped

Turns out he is much quicker on the jump than I am on the shutter, so this is the closest I came in three tries at capturing his leap. That is part of one of his hind legs in the upper right corner. But it does show how these spiders always leave a safety line of silk as they move or jump. Not a bad life plan really…look before you leap, and always leave a safety line, just in case. I think I can learn something by looking into those eyes.

Blue Grosbeak Nest

It is composed of fine dried grasses, which are more carefully arranged towards the interior, and is lined with a few delicate fibrous roots, dried moss, or horse-hair. There are seldom more than four eggs, but two broods are raised in the season.

~John Jame Audubon describing the nest of a Blue Grosbeak, 1844

The nesting season for most of our birds is winding down, so I was pleasantly surprised to get a call last week from my friends, Jan and Alvin, saying she had discovered an active Blue Grosbeak nest on their property. The nest was low in a Sweetgum sapling in a grassy area near a large patch of woods. I went over one morning and set up my pop-up blind backing up to a stand of Sweetgums about 25 feet from the nest. I decided to abandon the effort when the sun came up over the nearby woods and created unfavorable lighting conditions. Plus, the adult birds seemed nervous with the addition of what must have looked like the sudden growth of a dome-shaped tree in their territory. A few days later I returned and set up a camouflage netting wall inside the stand of Sweetgum trees, reasoning that this blended in better than the huge pop-up blind. I then departed, returning the next day for another try at the quickly growing young grosbeaks.

Blue Grosbeak nestlings

Blue Grosbeak nest (click photos to enlarge)

Sure enough, the adult birds seemed to accept me sitting behind the camouflage netting and came and went continuously for the next couple of hours while I tried to get some footage of what they were bringing to feed their nestlings. The nest was about 4 feet off the ground in the fork of the sapling. I could see a piece of snake skin (look closely at the upper right portion of the nest) that had been incorporated into the nest. This is a strategy many types of birds use (for example, Great Crested Flycatchers and Carolina Wrens) as a possible deterrent to predators. Researchers in Arkansas found the use of sloughed Black Rat Snake skins did serve to deter predation of artificial nest boxes, especially from mammalian nest predators like flying squirrels. Blue Grosbeaks are another species known to frequently use snake skins in their nest construction.

As I watched, I could finally make out the heads of four nestlings, but two of them clearly dominated the space in the nest, and seemingly the food items brought in by the parent birds. Unfortunately for me, the adult birds always brought the food in after landing in the same location on the far side of the nest, which was partially obscured by the two upright branches. They were also very fast in their food transfer, which made it tough to see what they were bringing to their young. During the two hours I was hidden in the camouflage netting, I observed 20 feedings. Of those where I could see a prey item, all were caterpillars of some sort. Here is an example of one of the quick feeding bouts:

In every feeding I witnessed, the adult bird brought in only one food item per visit. And in almost every trip, the adult would remove a fecal sac from one of the young before flying off. The young birds (especially two of them) became more active as the afternoon went on, scrambling over their nest mates, getting out on the edge of the nest, stretching, and preening. The most active nestling started looking up the branches above the nest and actively flapping. Suddenly, it jumped up and disappeared into the branches above. Amazing, I had witnessed a fledgling event! Gusts of wind were swaying the sapling back and forth and the adventurer soon lost its grip and fell down to the ground, but quickly fluttered up to another low branch. The second most active nestling soon started moving about the nest, looking up at another overhead branch. I started the video and was soon rewarded with another nest escape…

The gusty winds had calmed a bit by now, and this escapee moved nimbly on the twigs above the nest while the remaining two chicks chirped incessantly. The parent birds now have their work cut out for them….keeping up with their kiddies as they explore the area near the nest. Unfortunately, my camera battery ran out soon after the second fledging, so I decided to pack up my gear and let these birds get on with the business of raising a family.

Blue Grosbeak fledgling

The second Blue Grosbeak to leave the nest

While I did not get the quality footage I had hoped for in terms of documenting what the parent birds fed their young, I did witness an incredible moment in the life of a young bird, their first venture into the world outside the security of their nest. Having shared a few hours with these beautiful birds, I wish them well in their grand new adventures.

Predators Lurking Everywhere

Every kid has a bug period… I never grew out of mine.

~E.O. Wilson

After the climbing Copperhead incident over the weekend, I have been looking around more than usual every time I am outside. What I have discovered is that it is a jungle out there! Everywhere I look I see small critters feeding on the profusion of plants that seem to want to take over the few sunny spots in the yard. And where there are plant-eaters, there are plant-eater eaters, tiny predators lurking in almost every nook and cranny.

Spider shed 1

Spider shed (click photos to enlarge)

Even when I don’t see the predator itself, I find evidence of their success in their shed skins, a sure sign that hunting has gone well.

Orange Jumper - Paraphidippus aurantius

Orange Jumper – Paraphidippus aurantius

One of my favorite groups of yard wolves are the jumping spiders. They always provide a challenge in photography because of their tendency to jump onto the camera lens as you close in for the shot.

Orange Jumper - Paraphidippus aurantius 1

Male Orange Jumper

This male Orange Jumper let me follow him around for several minutes with my macro lens. He was methodically searching the leaves and stems in a patch of wildflowers, no doubt searching for any unwary prey items. Jumping spiders are much like tigers of the spider world. They do not build webs to catch their prey but rather use their impressive eyesight and jumping ability to stalk prey and then leap on it. But occasionally those big eyes can get fooled. I watched this little guy stalk a stamen that had fallen from one of the flowers, approach it, and then leap on it from about two inches away before realizing it wasn’t really an item on the spider menu.

Spined Assasin Bug - Sinea diadema 1

Spined Assassin Bug nymph – Sinea diadema

I found a tiny creature waiting near the disk of one of the Brown-eyed Susan flowers. When I looked closely, I could see it was covered in short spines. I believe this is a nymph of the aptly-named Spined Assassin Bug. These tiny predators are in the family Reduviidae, members of the order Hemiptera, which also includes stink bugs, leaf-footed bugs, and other insects. These spiky little beasts have raptorial front legs that are used much like those of a praying mantis, to grab and hold their prey. Then they insert their three-segmented beak into it, inject a venom, and suck out the partially digested body fluids.

Spined Assasin Bug - Sinea diadema

Another Spined Assassin Bug nymph

Another assassin bug nymph had what looked like the white waxy filaments of a Flatid Planthopper nymph on its front leg spines, perhaps some leftovers of a recent meal.

Flatid Planthoppers

Flatid Planthopper adults

These planthoppers have been very abundant on numerous plants in my yard this summer. Many are now transforming to the winged adult phase and are providing food for a variety of predators.

Orchard spider with prey

Orb weaver spider with planthopper prey

I have found several trapped by web-building spiders, both large and small.

Variable Dancer Damselfly (female) eating Planthopper

Variable Dancer Damselfly (female) eating Planthopper

One of the most delicate predators is one on the wing, a dainty beauty, a damselfly. Damselflies slowly patrol vegetation looking for prey. They then dart in and grab it and begin to feed. This Variable Dancer nabbed a planthopper and flew to a nearby iris leaf to dine.

Variable Dancer eating planthopper 1

Closeup of a damselfly meal

Though dainty in appearance, the damselfly is an efficient predator. She made short work of the planthopper before flying off to hunt again. And so it goes, miniature hunters and the hunted, in a constant dance in the jungle outside the door. There is always something to see and learn. We should never outgrow our bug period.

Cicada Killer, But Not The Kind You Think

There is no better high than discovery.

~E.O. Wilson

I walked out the front door before heading to bed last night just to see what I might see. The din from form the katydids was almost deafening, punctuated by the loud throaty “gunk” calls of the Green Frogs in the nearby water garden. When I swung the flashlight beam across the walkway, I saw something that really surprised me. I ran inside and grabbed my phone to try to get a quick image, as it was moving quickly.

Climbing Copperhead

Climbing Copperhead (click photos to enlarge)

What I saw was a Copperhead climbing in a stressed (almost leafless) Heart’s-a-busting shrub out front. Probably the same Copperhead we had seen the night before on the wooden walkway when we came back from a late dinner. I have seen many Copperheads in the yard, but never one climbing that far off the ground (probably 4 feet up in the shrub). It was several feet off the path, and, since I had only shorts and sandals on, I really didn’t want to venture out into the vegetation. The snake seemed purposeful in its movements, flicking its tongue and seemingly headed in a particular direction. Suddenly, my flashlight caught what I guessed was the snake’s destination – a cicada was starting to emerge out on the end of a delicate twig in that same shrub. I bolted inside to get my real camera which was, unfortunately, snugly tucked in its camera bag. These things never go as fast as you want – get camera, get macro lens and attach, grab twin flash and attach, install fresh batteries, run back outside. By the time I returned, the snake had worked its way much closer to the cicada.

Climbing Copperhead 2

The Copperhead was headed for something

The transforming adult cicada was now almost all of the way out of the nymph’s exoskeleton. I wanted to get closer for a photo so I gingerly stepped out into the vegetation, carefully looking where I was placing my feet. When I looked up, the snake was almost there, and as I brought up the camera to fire a shot, the emerging adult insect dropped free of the clinging nymph’s skin..dang it (honest, that’s what I said).

Closing in on cicada 2

The Copperhead closing in on the now empty cicada nymph shed

Closing in on cicada

Checking out the cicada shed

The hungry snake nudged the shed (the snake was also probably murmuring, dang it), and then changed direction, and, to my surprise, started heading toward the adult cicada now clinging on a small twig below.

Closing in on cicada 1

The Copperhead gets very close to the adult cicada, which is still unfurling its wings

Right as it closed in on its intended victim, the snake changed direction and started climbing back up into the shrub. I can only guess that either I was creating too much commotion with my excited movements and firing of flash, or, the cicada’s twig was just too small to support the snake.

Climbing Copperhead 1

The Copperhead retreats

The snake quickly descended down a larger twig, dropped to the ground, and slithered off, despite my attempt to corral it into a bucket (I usually like to move Copperheads to somewhere outside the deer fence).

It all happened pretty fast, and I had hurried my shots as I tried to take in this incredible scenario. What a discovery…a Copperhead climbing several feet off the ground to feed on an emerging cicada. Who knew!

Well, it turns out several people knew. This is a much more common occurrence than I realized. I immediately thought of a reference book on my shelf entitled Reptiles of North Carolina, co-authored by my former museum colleagues, Bill Palmer and Alvin Braswell. I remembered being surprised to read in this volume about Copperheads feeding on Hickory Horned Devil caterpillars, the largest caterpillar in North America, and one of my favorites. I located a table in the book listing the food items found in an analysis of the stomach contents of 41 Copperheads. Here is what the researchers could identify: 15 small mammals, 15 caterpillars (mostly large species sch as Hickory Horned Devils and Luna Moths), 5 lizards, 3 small snakes, 3 salamanders, 2 cicadas, and 1 small turtle.

So, they do feed on cicadas, but the climbing of trees and shrubs, how common is that? I turned to the internet for some answers (how lucky naturalists are now to have the power of the internet at their fingertips when they discover something new and want to learn more). The first hit was an incredible study by someone documenting Copperheads climbing trees to eat emerging cicadas! The three things that struck me from the report were that Copperheads often aggregate in areas to climb trees to feed on emerging cicadas; that they are following the scent trails of the nymphs as they climb from their subterranean feeding area up into the trees and shrubs to emerge as adults; and that one of the scientists that helped identify the cicadas to species for this study was another former museum colleague, Bill Reynolds.

Cicada escapes

This cicada narrowly escaped being dinner for a Copperhead

This really made me appreciate even more the dedicated field work, observations, and documentation being done by scientists like my former colleagues. I stumbled upon something that I have never seen before, but that is fairly well-documented. By searching my references and the internet, I was able to learn something about an amazing feeding behavior by a creature that I now appreciate much more than before. It is discoveries like these that can help us to understand and appreciate our world and that can only help us want to conserve it, even when it at first seems like something most of us might not care about protecting. And it once again made me realize how much I love discovering new things and learning about our natural world, a never-ending source of amazement.

Small Wonders

Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.

~Henry David Thoreau

The heat this past week has been pretty oppressive. So, I needed to remind myself that, even though there are not groups of Black Bears feeding in my woods like I saw last weekend down east, there are still reasons to brave the temperatures and get outside. Each day, I try to spend at least a little time wandering the yard, looking for the beauties that exist all around us. It never fails that I find something new and then spend time online or in the stacks of field guides that line the shelves, trying to learn more about the world around me. Small wonders and strange worlds exist just outside your door. Take a walk, have a look…

Bush Katydid nymph

Bush Katydid nymph (Scudderia sp.) (click photos to enlarge)

Graphocephala versuta leafhopper

Leafhopper, Graphocephala versuta

American Crow feather

American Crow feather

land snail

Land snail

Flatid Planthopper nymph in circle of waxy filaments

Flatid Planthopper nymph in circle of waxy filaments

Ailanthus Webworm Moth, Atteva aurea 1

Ailanthus Webworm Moth, Atteva aurea

planthopper nymphs

Planthopper nymphs

rain drop on iris leaf

Raindrop on iris leaf

Horace's Duskywing?

Horace’s Duskywing, a common butterfly at my wildflowers right now

Red-spotted Purple larva

Early instar of a Red-spotted Purple Butterfly caterpillar. They drape over the edge of a twig when disturbed, possibly to mimic a bird dropping.

River Oats seed after rain

River Oats seed head after a rain

Syrphid Fly

Syrphid Fly, a wasp mimic

Acanalonia conica planthopper

Planthopper, Acanalonia conica

Southern Shield Fern tip

Unfurling tip of the frond of a Southern Shield Fern

Tobacco Hornworm - Carolina Sphinx Moth larva

Tobacco Hornworm close up. These are the common caterpillars found on your tomato plants. They are the larvae of the Carolina Sphinx Moth. The circles are spiracles, the openings to their respiratory system.

Tylozygus geometricus leafhopper

Leafhopper, Tylozygus geometricus.

Virginia (or Yellowjacket) Hoverfly, Milesia virginiensis

Yellowjacket Hoverfly, Milesia virginiensis, a wasp mimic

Camera note – photos were taken with a Canon 7D Mark II camera using a Canon 100mm macro lens. Some of the images were taken with one or two extension tubes on the macro lens. Lighting provided by a Canon Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX with diffusers.