Thankful for Public Lands

Life wants you to have gratitude for the gift of living.  Treasure every second.

~ Bryant McGill

I am a believer in the value of our public lands. I worked for the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation the first 8 years of my career and am still a supporter of that fine organization and what they do to preserve the best of the wild places in our state. And, as readers of this blog know, my favorite place to visit is Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first national park. I usually vacation in areas with public lands and my guided trips are usually to public lands, especially our wildlife refuges. Recently I gave two programs to local photography groups on our national wildlife refuges, highlighting Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges (NWR), in the hopes that the audience will become visitors and supporters of the refuge system. So, of course, when I recently decided to take a few days and travel to some interesting places, it made sense for me to visit national wildlife refuges. I was debating whether to go south or north, but with the recent warm weather and rains, I decided south (where temperatures were predicted to be in the 80’s) might not be to my liking and the mosquitoes would have to feed on someone else, so north I went.

Chincoteague sunset

Chincoteague sunset (click photos to enlarge)

I drove first to Chincoteague NWR. I reported on some of the birds I saw in two previous posts, but there were several other species as well as some beautiful sunrises and sunsets.

Double-crested Cormorant resting

Double-crested Cormorant resting on tree limb

Great egret in shade

Great Egret with morning sun and shade

Great egret preening 1

Great Egret scratching an itch

Great egret preening 3

Great Egret preening

Great Egrets and Double-crested Cormorants provided some photographic subjects as they rested and preened a;long roadside canals. But, there were not that many waterfowl as yet, so I headed further afield and drove over to Blackwater NWR one afternoon from Chincoteague.

Mallards at Blackwater NEWR

Mallards at Blackwater NWR

Birds were not very common there either, but I did see a few ducks, lots of Canada Geese, and the soon-to-be de-listed Delmarva Fox Squirrel.

Delmarva Fox Squirrel at Blackwater NWR

Delmarva Fox Squirrel

While on the trip, I heard this huge tree squirrel will be taken off the endangered species list next month due to the recovery of its population. Good news!

Blackwater VC

Visitor Center at Blackwater NWR

One thing that really impressed me at Blackwater NWR were the facilities. The visitor center is beautiful, complete with a well-interpreted native plant garden out back. I had a chance to chat with two of the people in the gift shop (both volunteers) and learned that much of what I saw was donated by the efforts of the Friends of Blackwater NWR, a non-profit support group. They have been very creative in fund-raising and support for the refuge and it really has paid off. I encourage everyone to consider joining a Friends group for any of the refuges that you regularly visit. Your voice and your financial support go a long way, especially in these tough budget times.

Snow Geese at Bombay Hook

At last, Snow Geese!

Driving farther north, I had planned to spend a night in the vicinity of Bombay Hook NWR, figuring there should be some Snow Geese and other waterfowl. There were finally some Snow Geese, maybe 5000, but much of the refuge was closed for the weekend for one of their annual deer hunts. Unfortunately, I had missed that information when I checked the web site (it was posted at the bottom of the first page of the web site and I missed it going through the tabs at the top of the page). Lesson learned – when planning a visit to a wildlife refuge, be sure to check for restrictions and closures during hunting seasons. With limited access, at refuges up north I decided to head back to my home state and see what might be happening.

Dunlin at Pea Island

Dunlin at Pea Island NWR

Dowitcher at Pea Island

Short-billed Dowitcher grabs a minnow for breakfast

Sunrise at Pea Island NWR had a beautiful 6-point buck crossing north pond (and me with my camera still packed in the back, oh well, it was still beautiful to see). A flock of Dunlins and Dowitchers were feeding along the edge of the pond and allowed me some shots from the roadside.

American Bittern at Mattamuskeet

American Bittern near Mattamuskeet NWR

Gray fox on wildlife driver

Gray Fox on Wildlife Drive

On to Mattamuskeet which had some Tundra Swans and a few ducks, along with the eagle I posted about earlier. There was also an American Bittern out in the open in someone’s front yard right next to the road…not your usual spot for a bittern. And, it looks as though it will be another good year for Gray Foxes along Wildlife Drive as I saw two in my short time on the refuge.

Bear road

Bears coming out at sunset on an overcast day

My last stop on my way home was my old favorite, Pocosin Lakes NWR. A few swans flying, some ducks at sunset, and, of course, a few bears along “bear road”. Looks like another busy winter coming up. If you have a chance, get out this week to some public lands near you, and be thankful for the vision of those that helped establish these wonderful wildlife habitats and sanctuaries for our spirits, and for those that work to maintain them for us all.



An Eye for Eagles

Its soaring flight, with its pure white head and tail glistening in the sunlight, is really inspiring; and it adds grandeur to the scene as it sits in a dignified pose on some dead tree, its white head clearly visible against the dark green of the forest background.

~Arthur Cleveland Bent, 1937

Interestingly, the famed ornithologist quoted above also had this to say abut our national bird…“On June 20, 1782, our forefathers adopted as our national emblem the bald eagle, or the “American eagle” as it was called, a fine looking bird, but one hardly worthy of the distinction. Its carrion-feeding habits, its timid and cowardly behavior, and its predatory attacks on the smaller and weaker osprey hardly inspire respect and certainly do not exemplify the best in American character.” He also was not in favor of Benjamin Franklin’s preference for the Wild Turkey as our national symbol saying “such a vain and pompous fowl would have been a worse choice.” A Golden Eagle would have satisfied him, being a “far nobler bird”, but, as it is not strictly American, it would not qualify. So, in spite of its perceived character failings, Bent conceded that the Bald Eagle is at least a majestic looking bird. I agree, majestic, indeed. And, in spite of the scarcity of waterfowl on my recent circuit through the wildlife refuges of nearby states, I was greeted at every one of them by at least one Bald Eagle,  Haliaeetus leucocephalus.

Eagle nest location

Site of eagle nest along the Wildlife Loop at Chicncoteague NWR (click photos to enlarge)

The best views were at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. On my last trip there, two years ago, I saw eagles near their nest site in a small grove of trees adjacent to the Wildlife Loop on the refuge.

Bald Eagle nest

Pair of Bald Eagles sitting on nest

The nest is apparently still being used. Two adult birds were sitting in it, barely visible if you didn’t know where to look. The huge stick nest sits in a large pine less than 100 yards from a popular trail and is easily visible by the thousands of visitors that walk, cycle, and drive (cars are allowed on the loop after 3 p.m.) the loop each year. The refuge also has an eagle cam in their visitor center which provides lots of information and updates on the status of the nest. I believe this nest has been in use since 2012, when the previous one fell during the winds of Hurricane Sandy. Eagle nests tend to be used year after year, with more material added each year. This can lead to huge nests over time. A typical Bald Eagle nest is 4 to 5 feet in diameter and 2 to 4 feet deep. The largest Bald Eagle nest on record, located in St. Petersburg, Florida, was 9.5 feet in diameter, 20 feet deep and weighed almost 3 tons. That nest holds the record as the largest nest in the world built by a single pair of birds.

Bald Eagle on snag

An adult Bald Eagle poses nicely on a dead snag near its nest

On my second morning at Chincoteague, I was rewarded with one of the eagles perched out in the open near the nest. It was a classic perch, a tall, lone dead pine, a perfect place to survey your world if you are an eagle. I set up my tripod, put on the 500mm with a 1.4 teleconverter, and shot way too many shots as the eagle watched the comings and goings of ducks, ibis, and various other birds.

Bald Eagle stretch

The eagle stretched as if to fly (these images cropped compared to previous one)

At one point, the eagle leaned forward and stretched out. I thought it might launch itself into the air, a shot I would love to capture.

Bald Eagle scratching

Bald Eagle scratching

But, it was merely to get at an itch. The eagle leaned back and brought up its formidable talons to delicately scratch its face.

Bald Eagle scratching 1

Impressive talons stretched out to scratch

The talons can be used for a delicate operation like preening feathers, or for killing the eagle’s prey. According to the web site of the National Eagle Center, the crushing strength of each talon is estimated to be at least 400 pounds per square inch (psi). That is at least ten times stronger than the average grip strength of between 20 to 40 psi for a human hand. The talons on a female eagle are longer than those on a male (females are larger in general). The hind toe (hallux) has the longest talon and may be almost two inches long on a large female.

Bald Eagle on snag 1

Regaining the royal pose after a scratch

Another notable feature of a perched Bald Eagle is its impressive beak. Like the talons, the beak is made of keratin (similar to our fingernails). And its hooked tip and large size relative to the head size is an identifying feature for eagles even in poor light or at great distances (relative to vultures and some other large birds that people might confuse with eagles).

Bald Eagle head

Bald Eagle head (heavily cropped image)

Of course, the eyes of an eagle are one of its most impressive features. They are almost the same size (weight) as a human eye, even though an adult eagle might weigh only 14 pounds. Obviously, an eagle’s eyes take up a large proportion of its skull compared to ours. No one knows exactly how much better an eagle can see than us, but there have been some comparisons. Rod and cone cells on the retina send sight information to the brain. A human eye has about 200,000 cones per millimeter in a concentrated area on the retina. A Bald Eagle has a much higher concentration of about one million cones per millimeter. An online search showed a range of estimate that an eagle has anywhere from 4 to 8 times the visual acuity of a person.

Bald Eagle at Mattamuskeet

Last Bald Eagle of my refuge trip (at Mattamuskeet NWR)

I probably observed over twenty Bald Eagles on this trip, stopping to enjoy each sighting. I guess I must respectfully disagree with Mr. Bent in his assessment of our national bird. It is always a thrill to see one, and my recent tour of refuges showed that eagles are doing well here in the East. In fact, Bald Eagle populations nationwide have recovered enough that they were officially removed from the endangered species list in 2007. Back in 1963, the all-time low population of Bald Eagles in the lower 48 of the United States was estimated at 487 nesting pairs. When they were delisted, eagle populations had soared to an estimated 9789 nesting pairs in the lower 48. One recent estimate put the total population (not just nesting pairs) of eagles in North America (including Alaska and Canada) at 69,000. They are now being celebrated in many areas with eagle festivals, eagle-watching tours, and eagle nest cams. For me, the delight comes from seeing one perched in a tree, looking out over the terrain, searching for prey, and then lifting off with powerful wing beats into a blue sky. I, for one, am glad they are back.

Say Ahh…

I wake up in he morning and I say Ahh! Today’s the day for a song!

~Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys

I went on a rambling road trip last week to search for some migrating waterfowl and shoot a few images of something other than the weird bugs and fungi I have photographed recently (not that there’s anything wrong with that:) I started my quest at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia. I drove out next to the beach at sunset and found several gulls resting in the late afternoon sunshine. One immature gull was perched on a sign post next to the parking lot.

gull with open bill

Young gull opens it bill and says ahh (click photos to enlarge)

As I pulled up, the bird gave me the… well, an apparent opinion on my presence, or was it? It opened its beak wide, closed it, and repeated. Another car came by and my friend flew off leaving me wondering about this behavior. I have seen it before, especially in gulls…a repeated opening and closing of the beak while seemingly resting on the beach.

gull in late afternoon sun

Gull in late afternoon light enjoying a puddle

I found another group of gulls just down the beach that were enjoying a late afternoon bath in a freshwater pool in the sand. I shot a few pictures out the window, and then…

gull with open bill 1

Another gull gaping in the golden light

…another gape. So, is it me? Am I that boring? Is it a yawn? An online search that evening yielded little in terms of an explanation. When searching about birds using the term, “gape”, which to me means to open wide, the discussion was instead on the technical term relating to a part of a bird’s anatomy. The gape is the interior of the open mouth of a bird. It is common for the young of many species of birds to have brightly colored gapes which is believed to induce feeding by parent birds. When I googled gulls opening and closing their beak rapidly, I got things like threat displays of some birds, begging for food by young (and, in some species, females that are being wooed by a male), and the possibility of something being stuck in the throat of the bird with mouth ajar. There is even a parasitic nematode that irritates the trachea of an infected bird causing a disease known as “the gapes”. But, it seems like that is more prevalent in young poultry and pheasants.

gull with open bill 2

With their beak wide open, you can see how a gull can swallow large objects

So, I guess I am still unclear as to why the gulls are doing this. The light was fading, and as I started to head back to the hotel I noticed a Royal Tern sitting atop a low dune.

tern with open bill

Royal Tern sighing after a long day on the wing

As I pulled up…yup, he gave me the gape. Maybe I am overthinking this, and it really is just a sigh of relief, or a yawn, after a long hard day. If I check, they are probably doing the same thing on Monday mornings. I think I remember seeing that in some of my human counterparts back at the museum.

Celebrate America’s Best Idea with a Trip to Yellowstone in June!

Sky with Clepsydra Geyser

Clepsydra Geyser (click photos to enlarge)

Join me, June 2-9, 2016, for an unforgettable experience in the world’s first national park, Yellowstone! Next summer will mark 100 years since the creation of the National Park Service, and there is no better way to celebrate than by visiting Yellowstone. We will spend our days exploring Yellowstone’s unique thermal areas, beautiful landscapes, and wildlife-rich valleys. I offer small group (4 to 6 participants) field experiences that take you beyond the typical roadside views of this incredible park. Visit my Trips page for more information and to request a registration form. Space is limited. Previous blogs from Yellowstone trips can give you an idea of the wonder and beauty you will experience.

Here are a few images from last year’s trip…

Rocky Mountain Goat

Rocky Mountain Goat in the Beartooths

Great Gray Owl female

Great Gray Owl

Clouds at sunset along Slough Creek

Beautiful sky over Slough Creek

Bison calf out car window

Bison calf from the car window

Pronghorn doe at sunrise

Pronghorn doe at sunrise

Double rainbow in Hayden Valley 1

Double rainbow in Hayden Valley

Eye Shadow

They are of a most glorious Green, and very tame. There are several other Colours of these Lizards; but none so beautiful as the green ones are.

~John Lawson, in A New Voyage to Carolina, 1709

I went for a walk in the yard earlier this week, looking for anything that might be out and about in this wet and warm weather. There are still a lot of insects and spiders that are hanging on as we have not had a truly killing frost as yet. Brushing up against some hickory saplings growing inside the deer fence (there are none outside the fence), I caught a slight movement.

Carolina Anole in rain whole body

Green Anole on a misty day in autumn (click photos to enlarge)

It was a Green Anole, Anolis carolinensis. Well, in name it is green, but that day, it was brown. As you probably are aware, the Green Anole has the ability to completely change colors in just a few minutes. You may hear that it is so they can match their green or brown background. And many people call them “chameleons”. But, they are not a true chameleon and are more closely related to iguanas. And, their color changing behavior is much more complex than simple camouflage.

Green anole

Green Anoles can vary in color from brown to green

I found an older photo of an anole from the summer months and posted it above to show how bright green they can appear.

Carolina Anole in rain 1

The anole was mostly brown with some lighter colors around the eyes

The one this week was almost all brown, except for the scales around its eyes. It was a misty morning with temperatures in the 60’s, but the dampness made it seem cooler, so I was a little surprised to see one out. Even so, this one was moving slowly.

Carolina Anole in rain

Water droplets on the back of an anole

As it climbed over the top of some yellow leaves, I could see the tiny jewel-like water droplets beaded up on its back.

Carolina Anole in rain head shot

It moved to another leaf, which bent down with the weight of the tiny dinosaur, before the lizard popped its head back up to make sure I wasn’t getting any closer. That’s when the eye shadow really struck me.

Carolina Anole in rain head shot from side close up

Though subtle, the blues, greens, and yellows stood out against the soft brown of the other scales on the head.

Carolina Anole in rain head shot with yellow leaves close up

As I watched, the colors around the eye slowly faded

The photo above was taken about 6 minutes after the previous one. I have observed in the past a similar color change in the entire body of a Green Anole. This rapid color change has fascinated the public and scientists for a long time. Perhaps, because of this interest, and the relative ease of keeping this species in the lab, physiological color change has apparently been studied more thoroughly in Anolis carolinensis than in any other vertebrate. So, how do they do it, and why? That turns out to be a bit complicated, at least as far as I can comprehend.

Carolina Anole in rain head shot looking straight on

Color change is complicated

After reading several online resources, the best I can come up with is that the color change arises from light reflecting through the epidermis onto three layers of pigmented cells, called chromatophores, with each layer having a different name and being responsible for different color variations. From nearest the skin surface moving downward, the layers are one for blue (which technically has stacks of platelets that reflect blue-green light, instead of blue pigments), one for yellow (yellow and blue equals green), and one for brown. The lizards are able to change color in response to many factors including temperature, stress, and various other behavioral (especially social interactions) and environmental factors. Cooler temperatures, or more stressful conditions, lead to brown colors whereas warm temperatures and the lack of stress leads to the lizard’s being green. If I understand it correctly, this rapid color change is controlled by hormones released by the pituitary gland. When stressed, production of a hormone moves brown pigment granules to the surface, obscuring the blues and yellows beneath, and changing the overall color from green to brown.

I attempted to gather this information from a variety of online resources, but invariably got bogged down in scientific nomenclature like the following sentence: In this species, dermal chromatophores are known to be free of sympathetic innervation, leaving body color subject only to the influence of circulating chromo-active hormones: epinephrine (EPI), norepinephrine (NE) and melanotropin (MSH). I’m sure that is meaningful if you study such things, but I was getting lost. Then, I discovered an amazingly comprehensive community blog entitled, Anole Annals, written and edited by scientists who study Anolis lizards. They did a good job of synthesizing information in a more palatable form. I am constantly amazed (and impressed) by the availability of information and by the dedication and passion of those responsible for researching it and posting it on the web. I did not know until reading this site that the Carolina Anole is the first reptile to have had its genome sequenced. It seems that this species is one of the most studied reptiles in the world in a wide range of disciplines including physiology, behavior, ecology, and other subjects. Many of the studies have implications for human health and behavior.. There is even a citizen scientist page on that site so you can contribute your personal anole observations.

Carolina Anole in rain head shot with yellow leaves eyes closed

My anole finally tires of the photo session

No wonder my little anole started to doze off after several minutes of our photo session. She and her kind have been subjected to scientific research and public fascination for a very long time. She may need the rest. And, it seems like there is still a lot of research to be done.

I’ve spent my entire professional career studying anoles and have discovered that the more I learn about anoles, the more I realize I don’t know.

~Jonathan Losos, Anole Annals

By the way, if you didn’t do it as you read through, you really should go back and click on a few of the photos, especially the close ups of the head, in order to really appreciate the subtle colors. And check out that ear opening while you are at it.

What, There are More of Them?

There is no story that can’t be improved by adding zombies.

~Kelley Armstrong

Walking down the driveway this morning I noticed something on a twig that was propped up against a tree trunk. When I leaned in for a closer look, I said to myself, “you gotta be kidding me, another one?”

Cordceps fungus on unknown insect

Cordyceps fungus on unknown insect (click photos to enlarge)

It looked like another fungus-stricken cricket similar to the one I described in yesterday’s post. But, the more I looked, I realized I couldn’t quite tell exactly what was under those fungal stalks. As I was trying to figure this out, I detected something else about two feet away on the stem of a sapling.

Carolina Leaf Roller with fungus

Another Carolina Leaf-roller infected by the Zombie Fungus

This time there was no doubt…another cricket infected by the Zombie Fungus. Unlike the one yesterday, this one is obviously a female because of the presence of an ovipositor (sword-like structure for laying eggs) on the rear. I suppose the first thing I saw on the nearby twig is also a fungus-infected cricket, just one that has deteriorated to a greater degree. What’s going on in this yard? A Zombie Apocalypse? A Zombie Cricket Apocalypse? That doesn’t sound right. Since I am unschooled in the world of zombie vocabulary, I went inside and looked up what you call a group of them. Who knew there were so many resources on the internet for such things? One reference laid it out in great detail. If only a small area, like a building, or a graveyard, has a group of zombies, it is called an infestation. If a few acres are involved, it is a horde. If an entire community has them, it is called a plague. If an entire country or continent has zombies, it would be called a pandemic. And, if the entire world is overrun with zombies, then it is a Zombie Apocalypse. So, what do you call a group of crickets (a stretch of rainy days does strange things to me apparently)? The answer – an orchestra. That means the technical term for what is happening in the yard is an orchestra infestation. That doesn’t sound quite as bad I suppose.

Zombie Fungus

Of course life is bizarre, the more bizarre it gets, the more interesting it is. The only way to approach it is to make yourself some popcorn and enjoy the show.

~David Gerrold

I have a program coming up in a couple of weeks on things to look for in nature as winter approaches. So, this past Saturday, I decided to walk around the property and see what might inspire me. My Halloween hike turned out to be very productive and appropriately bizarre. I hadn’t even made it out of the yard when something caught my eye – a shape on the underside of a small Redbud sapling. I moved over for a closer look…whoa, spooky indeed.

Zombie fungus on cricket 1

A bizarre-looking bug caught my eye (click photos to enlarge)

I have encountered creepy critters like this a few times in the past, so I knew a little something about this phenomenon. My first thought was this was some sort of cricket or grasshopper that had been killed by a parasitic fungus. I reported on these entomopathogenic fungi in an earlier post on Soldier Beetles. The fungus on this cricket has a very different appearance, so I took a few photos and went inside to see what I could find on the internet.

Zombie fungus on cricket 3

Zombie fungus on Carolina Leaf-Roller Cricket

After searching the web and Google images on parasitic fungi on crickets, I think my little corpse is a Carolina Leaf-Roller, Camptonotus carolinensis, a type of wingless cricket. And, if that is the case, then this fungus is probably a species of Cordyceps (or perhaps Ophiocordyceps), a group of fungi that attack various insects. These insect-eating fungi have been collectively called Zombie Fungi, for the way they infect, and, ultimately kill, their hosts. They have received a lot of media attention since they were featured in a clip on ant-killing fungi on David Attenborough’s nature masterpiece, Planet Earth, a few years ago. It is well worth the couple of minutes it takes to be horrified by nature’s strangeness.

Zombie fungus on cricket 2

Fungal structures burst through weak points (joints) in the victims’ exoskeleton

Research is uncovering more about how these entomophagous fungi function. The basic pattern is as follows: a passing insect encounters a fungal spore in its wanderings that gets attached to the outside of the insect’s body, where it germinates. The fungus then enters the exoskeleton. It may use enzymes to penetrate the tough outer layer or it may enter, as one research paper indicated, by use of a specialized pressing structure called an appressorium. This organ forms a needle-like peg that presses against the cuticle and punctures it. Once inside, the fungus starts to grow mycelia (the vegetative part of a fungus that is made up of hair-like hyphae). The fungus can then absorb nutrients from its host and grow. Now things start to get really weird…

Zombie fungus on cricket

Fungal hyphae burst through the insect’s body and attach the victim to its perch

Within a few days after infection, the host insect begins to behave differently due to chemicals secreted into its brain by the invading fungus. Studies have shown that ants infected by one species of zombie fungus tend to crawl up on vegetation and lock onto a leaf with their mandibles. They soon die and stalk-like structures grow out of the ant to release spores. By altering the behavior of the ant, by making it climb up off the ground and attach its soon-to-be-dead body to the vegetation, the fungus ensures its spores are released in an environment favorable to their dispersal. The same is probably true of my dead cricket. It has been manipulated into a good spore-release position on the underside of a twig a couple of feet above the ground. The cricket appears to be fixed in place by another mechanism seen in body-snatching fungi. Specialized hyphae burst through the legs and and other body parts to anchor the hapless host to the twig.

Zombie fungus on cricket 5

The zombie effect is real

As I read more, it just kept getting stranger. For example, there seems to be a killer fungus in the tropics that attacks the zombie ant fungus, essentially covering it up and preventing it from releasing spores. And, Studies at Penn State, have revealed that one species of ant-killing fungus associated with a species of Carpenter Ant in South Carolina is capable of killing other species of ants, but not manipulating their behavior. The scientists conducted a series of experiments exposing the brains from several different species of ants (including the host for this fungal species) to the fungi. The fungus behaved differently (secreting a host of chemicals that are known to alter brain function) when in association with their usual host ant species, but not when confronted with the brains of the others. One researcher stated “it is impressive that these fungi seem to ‘know’ when they are beside the brain of their regular host and behave accordingly.” My favorite quote from the article about their research was this summary of this seemingly otherworldly behavior – “This is one of the most complex examples of parasites controlling animal behavior because it is a microbe controlling an animal — the one without the brain controls the one with the brain“. Something else that interested me about their latest research is that it is the first time a species of North American ant with its parasitic fungus has been studied (all others have been tropical). They credited an amateur naturalist in South Carolina with bringing attention to this species through her incredible macro-photographs posted on her Flickr site. It shows, once again, the value of citizen science and natural history observations.

Zombie fungus on cricket 4

Bizarre is as bizarre does

As if all this seemingly alien biology isn’t strange enough, I also came across some cultural references to this phenomenon. One item mentioned the medicinal value of a Cordyceps fungus from high elevations of the Tibetan Plateau in Asia. C. sinensis has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine for conditions ranging from fatigue to ailments of various organs such as the kidney, heart, and lungs. It is one of the rarest and most expensive forms of Oriental medicine because of its highly specific growth environment and restricted geographical range. The fungus grows from the head of one species of infected caterpillar that burrows into the soil in these alpine environments. I was puzzled as to how it could be collected for medicinal use until I saw some photos online. Unlike my cricket’s thread-like projections, C. sinensis grows to lengths of a few inches and looks more like your little finger in overall size. Wild collected fungi sold in 2008 for as much as $30,000 per pound in places like San Francisco. There are now means of artificially cultivating the fungus and research is underway to verify its value for treating many diseases, including some forms of cancer.

And, lastly, as I was wrapping up my reading, I came across something befitting the day of my discovery. Reading the moniker, “zombie fungus”, on Halloween of all days, started me thinking about the what ifs of this ghastly group. It turns out these fungi have also served as an inspiration for one of the most popular and award-winning video games in recent years. The action-adventure game, The Last of Us, was inspired, in part, by the Planet Earth video clip I mentioned at the beginning of this post. The game’s plot explores the concept of the Cordyceps fungus evolving and infecting humans, and the results of an outbreak of this infection. Wow, a classic case of truth being stranger than (or at least inspiring) fiction.

That’s probably enough bizarre stuff for one Halloween hike. I think I’ll go have some popcorn…

Strange Beauty

There is no exquisite beauty…without some strangeness…

~Edgar Allan Poe

I came across this strange spider the other day as I walked through the back gate. I noticed its striking white abdomen moving slowly around its web with a small up and down motion, accompanying a slight twist of the body as it moved. The spider was making its web, an orb web, and the motion I saw was it anchoring the spiral, sticky threads to the “spokes of the wheel” foundation threads (non-sticky) as it circled around and around. I went inside and grabbed my camera, but when I returned, the spider had stopped moving and was obviously feeding on a tiny prey that had blundered into the web in my absence.

Spinybacked Orbweaver 2

The black background created by using my flash made it hard to see details of this unusual spider (click photos to enlarge)

My first photo was less than satisfying – the black and white pattern and odd shape did not translate very well in my flash photo. The black spines adorning the spider’s abdomen tended to vanish into the black background created by the flash.

Spinybacked Orbweaver 3

When I got back with my camera, the spider was feeding on something it had caught in its web

So, I went inside and grabbed a piece of white foam core, clamped it to a tripod and set it up behind the spider so the spider was now outlined in a light background color through my viewfinder. I took a few more shots and went back inside to confirm the identification of this odd-looking species.

Spinybacked Orbweaver 1

Spinybacked Orbweaver

My unusual spider is a Spinybacked Orbweaver, Gasterocantha cancriformis. The scientific name says it all – gaster = belly, acantha = thorn; cancer = crab, forma = shape. Another common name for this species, especially in Florida, is the Crab Spider (although it is not related at all to the familiar Crab Spiders, Family Thomisidae, that are the sit-and-wait hunters we often see on flowers). Although this female is quite small (about 1/2 inch in width), her circular web can be quite large, up to a couple of feet in diameter. They can vary in color (yellowish abdomens and black or red thorns) throughout their range, although the few I have seen here in the Piedmont were all this black and white pattern. The spines are quite stiff and are presumably a defense against certain predators like birds. And the bizarre shape and pattern of this strange beauty is a fitting addition to the season as it almost looks like some sort of scary mask with multiple eyes. Perhaps a costume idea for the future…

Cute Jumper

I always like jumping spiders. They’re just so darn cute.

~Cheryl Hayashi

As I neared the end of my hike along the Haw River last week, I noticed a slight movement on a tree trunk along the trail. I stopped and looked, and, at first, saw nothing. So, I placed my hand on the trunk, and something moved again. It was gray-brown and blended very well with the tree bark.

Tan Jumper 1

Tan Jumping Spider blends well with tree bark (click photos to enlarge)

It was a Tan Jumping Spider, Platycryptus undatus. I recognized it from research I did on another fall spider post from a couple of years ago. The scientific name is a good descriptor for this common species of jumping spider. Platy means “broad and flat” referring to the flattened body profile which allows this species to edge into crevices in tree bark or other tight spaces. Cryptus means “hidden” and refers to their ability to blend in with many natural backgrounds, The specific name undatus means “wavy” and refers to the wavy or scalloped pattern on top of the abdomen, which helps them hide on mottled backgrounds like tree bark.

Jumping spider along Haw

After looking at my camera screen, I could see this spider was eating another, much smaller, spider

This species, like many jumping spiders, is relatively easy to observe. In fact, they oftentimes seem almost curious about us, and will approach or jump onto you or your camera as you try to get close for a photo. This little female (about 1/2 inch in length) was quite cooperative and I was able to herd her into a position for a few images. I finally realized that one reason she might have been so still is that she was busy feeding on a smaller spider.

Jumping spider along Haw 3

Their large eyes, and tendency to orient toward us when we get close, may explain why many people think jumping spiders are so cute

Their large eyes help make jumping spiders one of the most appealing groups of spiders. I had a tough time getting a good angle on this one because it was so focused on its food. I finally eased the camera close and shot a short video clip as she manipulated the remains of her prey.

She finally dropped the spider carcass and started to move about. I tried corralling her with one had while getting the camera close with the other, but she wasn’t interested.

Jumping spider along Haw 2

The last image taken before she jumped on my camera and then dropped into the leaf litter below

The last thing I saw on the camera screen was the spider raising up, those large eyes looking up at me. She then leaped onto the top of the camera and quickly dropped down into the leaf litter at the base of the tree. Ironically, the next day, I was out back photographing another spider and as I went into the basement door, there was a slight movement on the window – another Tan Jumping Spider staring up at me. It must be their season.

Hiking the Haw

A river is the most human and companionable of all inanimate things. It has a life, a character, a voice of its own, and is as full of good fellowship as a sugar maple is of sap.

~Henry Van Dyke

Haw River reflections 1

Autumn reflections along the Haw River (click photos to enlarge)

Fall color is starting to peak here in the Piedmont of North Carolina so I thought it would be a good time to hike along the nearby Haw River. The Haw is part of the Cape Fear River basin and the stretch that runs through this area is gorgeous, especially in early morning or late afternoon light. Last Friday, I got a ride down to the Hwy 64 bridge and hiked upriver a couple of miles to our neighborhood. I traveled light – the usual binoculars, a hiking pole to clear the path of spider webs, and my new Olympus Tough TG-4.

Haw River reflections

Haw River reflections

The early morning light accentuated the arboreal palette and made me wonder why I had waited so long to enjoy this beautiful hike. A few years ago, about 1000+ acres along both banks of this stretch of the Haw were acquired by the state as the Lower Haw River State Natural Area. The actual trail lies along a little over 4 miles of the east bank, from the Hwy 64 bridge to Bynum. For a couple of miles it runs along the boundary of our community, making for easy access to enjoy the sights and sounds of the river.

Haw River reflections 4

Morning sun peeking over the treetops in a reflecting pool along the Haw

The path is narrow, occasionally littered near its start by thoughtless bank fishermen, but you soon leave that and the road noise behind and are accompanied by the gurgling sounds of water over rocks.

Haw River reflections 3

The Haw has many moods, from quiet and reflective, to roaring and dangerous at high water

On this day, the river flowed gently over, and between, the many rocks that line its corridor.

Haw River reflections 2

The river level gave rise to many boulder-shrouded pools where waters were still

Evidence of recent high water is suspended in the shrubs and trees along the bank, but now I can step out into the river on the many exposed boulders that frame quiet pools. There still is enough flowing water to muffle many of the sounds of the forest along the trail, but I did hear the unmistakable chirping of a Bald Eagle at one point, before realizing it was perched in a tree right next to me. As I slowly eased toward the river bank, it flew across and perched in a large Sycamore, so I moved on, leaving it in peace. I saw a few other birds along the way, plus a lot of animal sign like Beaver chew marks and the tracks of Raccoon and White-tailed Deer. And, since it was a warm and sunny morning, there were plenty of insects and spiders out and about. A hatch of caddisflies was happening on the river, and several of these tent-winged insects landed on me as they began their aerial existence from what has been their aquatic home. I also encountered more than my share of spider webs strung across the trail (always a good sign that you are the first person to hike a trail that day). After scrambling up the bank at the main creek crossing along this section of trail (there are no bridges for the side creeks feeding into the Haw), I saw one of my favorite autumn arachnids.

Marbled Orb Weaver

Marbled Orb Weaver

Marbled Orbweavers, Araneus marmoreus, are large, brightly colored spiders, most often seen in late summer and fall. This one is a female, much larger than the males as is so often the case in the world of spiders. She was hiding in her daytime retreat, a curled leaf, off to the side of her large circular web. She pulls the leaf into a curl with silk and then hides in the safety of the retreat awaiting a signal from a struggling prey. She is able to feel their floundering via a strand of silk, a signal line, that runs from the center of the web to her hide.

Marbled Orb Weaver leaf retreat

The leaf retreat of another Marbled Orbweaver just a few feet away (look closely and you can see the spider inside)

Unfortunately, I had stumbled into her web as I climbed over a log, and pulled open her retreat. She posed for a few photos in the morning sun, and then I placed her back on the limb where some of her web remained. Just a few feet from that limb was another large web, and, sure enough, another spider hiding in a leaf retreat.

Marbled Orb Weaver 2

My spider had a glob of some sort of prey in her mouth parts that she continued to hold during the photo session

The colorful abdomens of these spiders tend to darken with age, so many appear bright orange by late October. This has given rise to another of their common names, the Halloween Spider.

Marbled Orb Weaver shadow

I caught her shadow on a branch below as she returned to her remaining web

Perhaps this species is one of the reasons spiders are often associated with this spooky holiday. Several scientists even started a spider awareness campaign on Twitter for the month of October to take advantage of this perceived connection – #Arachtober. They have some incredible photos and fascinating information about this too-often misunderstood group of invertebrates. In honor of their efforts and the important role that spiders play in our world, I will try to post a few more spider topics this week.