Harvey

The larva of the Royal Walnut Moth is a striking object. With its curved horns and numerous spines it presents to the uninitiated a truly repellent aspect.

~W.J. Holland, in The Moth Book, 1968

Hickory Horned Devil

Hickory horned devil caterpillar (click photo to enlarge)

I must agree with Mr. Holland in that I have seen many “uninitiated” people react with horror on their first sighting of a hickory horned devil. But I, and many of my caterpillar-loving friends, think this gargantuan larva is one of the sweetest finds you can make on any summer walk in the woods. And that is exactly how I reacted a few weeks ago as we hiked out to Morgan Creek with our 16 summer campers for some creek dipping. As we neared the creek bottom, I spied some frass (caterpillar poop) in the trail. Anytime I find a cluster of frass on the ground (especially large ones like this), I look up in anticipation. After some searching, I found it, and was thrilled to see it was a hickory horned devil. It was feeding on sourwood, a host species I have never found one on before. I left it until we had finished with the creek sampling and then collected it on the way back to the classroom.

The kids were amazed at its size and further astonished that it still had some growing to do before it was done as a caterpillar. We named it Harvey (why not?) and they excitedly checked on it every day. On Friday, Harvey stopped feeding and hung under a branch, motionless. I decided to take it home for the weekend to watch it and provide fresh food, but the larva did not move until Sunday morning when I looked in and saw this…

hickory horned devil after shedding its skin

Hickory horned devil after shedding its skin

Harvey sat motionless for two entire days prior to this molt. He remained in that position much of that morning and then finally turned around and began to eat his shed skin, something I have seen these larvae do every time I have raised one.

Hickory horned devil starting to eat its shed skin

Eating the shed skin, horns first

Over the next couple of hours, I checked on its progress as the larva slowly consumed the shed skin, starting with the formidable spines.

Hickory horned devil eating its shed skin

Almost done

By the next morning, Harvey had acquired his new set of colors, the bold green with stripes and the orange “horns” that cause people to worry (unnecessarily) about their safety should they encounter this behemoth.

HHD

Final instar of a hickory horned devil

Harvey then did what caterpillars do best – he ate and ate and produced a lot of rabbit  scat sized frass. He did this for another week (with a new group of admiring summer campers) and then the final change began. It starts with a blue-ish tint appearing in the green background color. Then he stopped feeding and began crawling about the cage, a sure sign that the search is on for a place to pupate (this species burrows into the soil to form its pupa).

hickory horned devil shrinking for pupation

Harvey shrinking and getting ready for the long sleep

Over the next couple of days Harvey started to shrink. By week’s end, he was about 1/3 his original size, but would still wriggle if touched.

Hickory horned devil approaching pupation

The day before the pupa

The last morning of camp, I looked in the container and the final shed had occurred, his old skin lying next to the fresh pupa.

Hickory horned devil  fresh pupa

Shortly after the last shed, the beginnings of a pupa (it darkens over time)

The pupa took a couple of days to harden and darken. Harvey will now wait until at least next summer (some overwinter as pupa for 2 years I have read) before emerging as a beautiful Royal Walnut Moth. Thanks, Harvey, for allowing two groups of summer campers (and some astonished adults) a glimpse into part of your amazing life.

Royal walnut moth

The final product (a Royal Walnut Moth)…next year

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surprise Visitor

Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us.

~Boris Pasternak

Eastern tiger swallowtail female dark morph

Female Eastern black swallowtail, dark morph (click photos to enlarge)

I have been enjoying all the Eastern tiger swallowtails in the yard these past few weeks, along with the antics of the hummingbirds at the feeders and wildflowers. Living in a house of windows has its advantages as I can easily keep an eye on all the comings and goings in the yard as I walk from room to room.

Giant swallowtail nectaring

I saw a black-colored swallowtail with yellow under its wings

This morning, something caught my eye and my brain registered a flash of surprise. I saw a large, dark-colored butterfly, wavering at various flowers, at each one for just a second or two. But the undersides of its wings were mainly yellow, quite different from the dark morph Eastern tiger swallowtail females I usually see. From somewhere in my field guide memory banks, the ID came rushing out – a giant swallowtail in the yard! I have never seen one of these beauties in North Carolina (I vaguely remember seeing one in Florida, where they are much more common). I grabbed my camera and went outside to document it, but found it frustratingly elusive. It was in constant motion, visiting various flowers (mainly garden phlox, Joe-Pye weed, and ironweed) for only a few seconds before fluttering on. After my brief time with this species, I definitely agree with Jeff Pippen’s summary of giant swallowtails on his web siteGiant Swallowtails are notoriously challenging to photograph with a point-and-shoot style camera because they stay in constant motion while nectaring, fluttering their forewings for balance rather than perching.

Giant swallowtail resting

After fluttering around the yard for several minutes, it landed in the sun for a few seconds

After following it around the yard for a few minutes, I was delighted when it landed on a tall goldenrod and spread its wings to soak up some sun. I grabbed a couple of photos from afar (I had my macro lens on, so not much for telephoto shots), and then crept closer.

Giant swallowtail resting close up

A rare (and beautiful) butterfly here in the Piedmont

I finally managed a couple of pics from a few feet away, highlighting its bold yellow and black marking on its dorsal surface. And then, in an instant, it was gone. I had gone inside to walk through the house to get a closer view, but when we went out the front door, it was nowhere to be seen. I went inside to look it up on the Biodiversity Project of NC butterfly web site and saw that this species is uncommon and local along our coast and very rare and local in a few spots in our foothills and low mountains. It is considered extremely rare to very rare in the Piedmont.

The reason is that the host plants are in the rue family (Rutaceae). What this means for NC is prickly-ash along the coast and hoptree at scattered inland sites. It also will lay eggs on cultivated citrus plants in our state and is considered a pest in citrus-growing regions of Florida ad elsewhere. The records for Piedmont NC (and I think this may be a new record for Chatham County) are almost all believed to be migratory individuals or localized numbers associated with potted citrus plants. Whatever the reason, I am happy this one butterfly paid us a surprise visit this morning.

 

Discovering Diversity

Bringing nature into the classroom can kindle a fascination and passion for the diversity of life on earth and can motivate a sense of responsibility to safeguard it.

~David Attenborough

We are finishing up summer camps at work and the adult group tours are starting to ramp up. In a few weeks, our school field trips will begin. While I have always believed in the value of bringing the outdoors indoors for observation, I prefer taking the student outside the classroom to see the diversity of life that surrounds us, no matter where we live. There is so much happening in the Garden right now as we begin to wind down the summer season – fall wildflowers staring to bloom, butterflies and other pollinators abound, seeds and fruit are becoming more noticeable, and visitors seem anxious to stroll our trails and take it all in (especially after all the rains we have had). After work yesterday, I decided to take a stroll through this native plant wonderland before heading home, camera in hand, to see what I could see. There were plenty of things I did not photograph – the stunning stand of cardinal flower that is concentrating hummingbirds along our Piedmont trail; the snapping turtle awkwardly grazing on lizard’s tail leaves in our vernal pool surrounded by hundreds of gray treefrog tadpoles; or the flashes of yellow as goldfinches fly up from their dinner on the seed heads of yellow composites and purple coneflowers. But I did stop to observe and digitally capture a few things that caught my eye, and called me and my macro lens over for a closer look. The diversity of life in this Garden is amazing (and is something we can all do on our own property, at least in some small way, if we plant a variety of native plants).

Pandorus sphinx moth

A beautiful Pandorus Sphinx moth resting on a building wall (click photos to enlarge)

question mark butterfly

Right next to the moth was a Question Mark butterfly on a chair arm (see the mark on the underside of the wing for which it is named?)

Few-flowered milkweed seed pod

A seed pod of a Few-flowered Milkweed releasing its treasure

Hummingbird clearwing moth at garden phlox

Hummingbird Clearwing moth feeding at Garden Phlox

Pine lily

Pine lily (Lilium catesbaei) in our carnivorous plant collection

Green lynx spider malegg

A male Green Lynx spider

Green lynx spider with wasp prey

A female Green Lynx with a large wasp as dinner

Take a stroll and discover some of the diversity outside your own door. It will be worth it!

Zestful Zebras

Butterflies and zebras. And moonbeams and fairy tales. That’s all she ever thinks about. Riding with the wind.

~Lyrics from Little Wing by Jimi Hendrix

Zebra swallowtail nectaring

Zebra swallowtail butterfly on mountain mint (click photos to enlarge)

Zebra swallowtails (Eurytides marcellus) are surely one of North Carolina’s most beautiful butterflies. Their bold pattern of black and white stripes, long tails, and the bright red spots near the base of their hind wings never fail to delight me when I spy one flitting through the summer air. They are almost never found far from their host plants, pawpaw. The most I have ever seen were down at Pettigrew State Park and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, where pawpaw is the dominant tree in the understory. I have them occasionally at home (we have several pawpaw trees on our property) and have seen them frequently this summer at work. Last week was a particularly good one for spying these flitting beauties. I am working on a photo collection of the pollinators of the NC Botanical Garden and am trying to get out once a day for at least a few minutes to document the amazing abundance of species visiting our wildflowers. While stalking some wasps on a sunny afternoon after summer camp duty, a stunning butterfly zoomed by, quivering as it foraged on a couple of species of mountain mint (Pycnanthemum sp.) in the roadside Piedmont habitat.

Zebra swallowtail nectaring showing blue in wing

No other local butterfly has this dramatic shape and color combination

There is no mistaking a zebra swallowtail – a rapid flyer, with bold markings and long tails. This one was particularly gorgeous, and fast. The summer generation is larger, bolder in color and has longer tails than the early spring one and this beauty looked fresh. The tails seemed particularly long and the red spots on the hind wings especially bright. There was even a hint of blue in the stripes at certain angles. It was a challenge getting close enough to attempt a photo, and quickly became a frustration as the butterfly never sat still while flitting among the clusters of tiny mountain mint flowers. One reference said that these swallowtails have a shorter proboscis than most, and are therefore more often seen on small flowers than are other species of swallowtails. I managed a couple of in-focus (mostly) pics before I had to head back inside, but was wishing for another chance.

Zebra swallowtail shortly after emergence

A lucky find – a freshly emerged zebra swallowtail drying its wings

On Friday, we explored the habitat gardens and, as happens on most walks, one of the campers hollered, “Mister Mike, come look at this”. I walked over and peered down into the grasses and saw a newly emerged zebra swallowtail climbing up to finish hardening off its wings. I gently let it climb onto my finger and placed it on a twig of a pawpaw sapling (most likely its dining hall as a larva). At last, a non-fluttering zebra swallowtail! I grabbed a few quick photos, and thanked our young camper for her sharp eyes and inquisitiveness. Hopefully, after a week of exploring the garden, they are all taking home the lesson of the value of planting native species and the rewards of observing the beautiful mysteries of the natural world.

 

 

Spider Hunter

…most will be murderesses, but they have brought murder to a fine art, an act of exquisite precision.

~John Crompton, introduction to his book, The Hunting Wasp

Spider Wasps (Pompilidae) - Damascus, VA; possibly Tachypompilu

Rusty spider hunter wasp with prey (click photo to enlarge)

As we were starting to get into the car last weekend at my folks’ place, I saw some movement on the driveway. A closer look reveled a large wasp dragging a spider rapidly across the surface. By the time I got the camera out of the car, the wasp had carried her load another few feet. As I leaned in for a photo, she dropped her prize and scurried toward the garage door, circling as if looking for something. I have seen this behavior many times with this group of wasps, the spider hunters in the family Pompilidae.

Adult spider hunters feed on nectar, but females provision their nest with a paralyzed spider for their young. The wasp precisely stings a spider (often one that is much larger than herself) to stun it, not kill it (the developing larva needs “fresh” food, not a rotting spider corpse). Grasping the spider by the pedipalps or chelicerae, she then walks backwards, dragging her prey to a nest cavity she has already dug. If disturbed, she may drop the spider and return later to continue her labors. She may also occasionally drop the spider and scout ahead for the exact location of her burrow, which, as she gets close, she hones in on based on visual landmarks near the entrance hole.

We watched as the wasp disappeared with the spider into a hole in a crack where the pavement met the building. This is a common location for burrows of this species, the rusty spider hunter, Tachypompilus ferrugineus. In most species of spider hunters, the single egg laid on the spiders’ abdomen will hatch in about 10 days. The wasp larva eats the non-vital tissues of the stunned spider first in order to keep its meal as fresh as possible while it feasts. After completing its meal, the wasp larva spins a cocoon and pupates. One researcher reported that the size of the spider may determine the resulting sex of the developing wasp larva, with larger prey leading to female wasps. Rumor has it that many of the spider hunters can inflict a painful sting if grabbed by a careless human, but this female was busy with her provisioning and paid us no mind. We felt lucky to witness one of nature’s classic scenes of life and death in the asphalt jungle of a driveway. You just never know when or where nature will reveal some of her mystery…

 

Bugs Galore

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

~E.O. Wilson, naturalist and author

The theme for summer camp last week at work was The Secret Lives of Bugs. We spent five days cruising around garden properties looking for bugs and other beasts. The kids had a great time and I managed a few pics of some of our finds along the way. Here are just a few of the wonderful creatures we discovered…

Longhorned beetle

A long-horned beetle brought to us one morning by one of the staff (click photos to enlarge)

Isopod

Campers learned about all sorts of “bugs”, including ones that had more than 6 legs like this isopod

Blue dasher dragonfly

The most common dragonfly at the Garden, the blue dasher

Spicebush swallowtail larva

One of my favorite bugs, a spicebush swallowtail caterpillar, still in its bird poop mimic stage

Eight-spotted forester larva

Eight-spotted forester moth larva

Oakworm moth just after emergence

One of the campers spotted this newly emerged oakworm moth (the wings are not yet pumped out to their full adult size)

Assassin bug nymph

Assassin bug nymph

honeybees from CCCG hive

One of the highlights of the week was a visit to a honeybee hive at the Carolina Campus Community Garden

honeybee with mite

A male honeybee with a varroa mite (that brown oval) on its thorax. These introduced mites are a major pest of honeybees.

bumblebee nest in box

We also learned about native bees from an NCSU entomologist. She brought a live bumblebee nest (above) and a drone box, where kids could let male bumblebees (drones) crawl on them (male bees lack stingers).

Mating Tiger Bee Flies

Mating tiger bee flies. These large flies are parasites on the nests of carpenter bees.

Signal fly - Family Platystomatidae

A signal fly earns its name from its behavior of waving its patterned wings back and forth as it walks, as though giving signals

Dragonhunter nymph

Sampling Morgan Creek yielded some nice bugs, including this unusual dragonhunter dragonfly nymph…

Dobsonfly larva

…and several of the somewhat intimidating hellgrammites (dobsonfly larvae)

Margined madtoms

We also managed some non-buggy critters, like these margined madtoms from Morgan Creek…

Spotted salamander close up

This gorgeous spotted salamander was found by another staff person as it cruised between buildings on a very rainy day

 

Inside a Rolled Leaf

Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.

~Confucius

It has been so busy lately that I tend to forget to “stop and smell the roses”, to take advantage of where I work and live, and to make the time to just look around, ponder, and be amazed. Luckily, I remembered to do just that a couple of weeks ago when I saw some rolled leaves on one of our water garden plants, Powdery Alligator Flag, Thalia dealbata. I am not that familiar with this species, but it seems as though something has taken a liking to the large, canna-like leaves this spring. Horticulture staff commented that this type of defoliation on this species was not common. We were all curious as to who the leaf-rollers might be.

rolled Thalia leaf

Rolled leaf caused by caterpillar (click photos to enlarge)

I peeked into some of the rolled leaves and could see a green caterpillar in some of them. Leaf-rolling is a great way to provide some shelter for yourself and is seen in many types of caterpillars. I googled leaf-rolling on Thalia and quickly discovered that this was probably the work of the larva of a Brazilian skipper, Calpodes ethlius. Larvae are commonly found on leaves of canna, although Thalia is also mentioned as a host.

Brazilian skipper larva inside rolled Thalia leaf

Peeking under the leaf reveals the leaf-roller tucked inside

To create their feeding shelter, the newly hatched larva chews two parallel lines of leaf tissue from the leaf margin toward the center of the leaf. It attaches silk strands to both the outer and inner edges. As the silk dries, it contracts, pulling the leaf into an open-ended tube in which the larva hides.

Brazilian skipper larva in powdery alligator flag (Thalia)

Teasing open the leaf roll reveals the prepupa

That first day, I had teased open a shelter and seen the small caterpillars but did not have my camera. On my next visit, several days later, I found some huge larvae and a prepupa. I must confess I didn’t notice it was already in the prepupa stage until I looked at the images. Close inspection of the photo above reveals the silk strand that forms a girdle attaching the larva to the leaf ,about 1/3 the way down the body from the head. You also can see the large amount of silk along the leaf midrib and how it appears the posterior end of the larva may be attached by silk strands.

Brazilian skipper chrysalis in rolled leaf

On another leaf, a chrysalis

Inspecting another rolled leaf, I found the strange-looking chrysalis of this species. I had seen a photo online and had hoped to be able to see one for myself, and here is was!

Brazilian skipper chrysalis a few days before emergence

An unusual shape

Brazilian skipper chrysalis close up of head region

Small horn-like projection at the anterior of the chrysalis along with a silk girdle

Brazilian skipper chrysalis close up of tail region

The posterior of the chrysalis with the proboscis sheath extending from below

There is a small anterior horn (could this be the antenna inside?) and a long tube coming from the underside that extends beyond the posterior part of the chrysalis. We wondered what that was and I finally found a reference that said it contains the long proboscis of the skipper. I cut this leaf and brought it into my office where I set it up in a vial of water in the window, hoping to witness the emergence of the adult.

Brazilian skipper chrysalis a day before emergence

The day before emergence – an odd-looking pupa

Five days passed, and the pupa took on a new look. You could see more of the developing skipper inside.

Brazilian skipper chrysalis closeup right before emergence

The eye looks huge in the developing pupa

The huge eye of the adult was particularly noticeable. In many species, when you can see more of the adult inside the pupa, that is a signal that it will soon emerge. As luck would have it, I had off-site first aid training the next morning, and when I returned…

Brazilian skipper a few hours after emergence 1g

The freshly emerged Brazilian skipper

I found an empty chrysalis, and, at first, no skipper. Searching the office, I finally saw some movement under some of the debris-pile on my table next to the window. I grabbed a twig and gently picked up the fresh skipper. What a beauty (and that eye is huge)!

Brazilian skipper a few hours after emergence

According to the official record-keepers of The Butterflies of North Carolina, the Brazilian skipper is a somewhat rare species in our state, especially in the Piedmont. Details of the flight period and life history in our state are not well known. It is a migrant from further south (it is more common in Florida), but it does breed in North Carolina. I’ll drop a note to the compilers of the list and let them know we have this rare beauty this summer at NCBG. I’m really glad I peeked inside that leaf roll.

 

Pungo Summer

Ah, summer, what power you have to make us suffer and like it.

~Russell Baker

It’s been too long since I have visited my other favorite place, the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. So, with Melissa in Yellowstone leading a museum youth group, I decided to make a day-trip this past weekend to look for bears and whatever else summer on the Pungo might bring. It was about 9 a.m. by the time I pulled onto the refuge dirt roads. Things started surprisingly slow…no bears at all (n fact, not much of anything) for my first complete circuit through the refuge. That is pretty unusual for a Pungo summer – no bears! The greenhead flies and deer flies were pecking on my windows whenever I stopped the car, but I decided to get out anyway and spend some time along the edges of a wetland to see what I could see.

cattail flower

Cattail flower spike – female part below, male part is the brown spike above (click photos to enlarge)

Lizard's tail flower

Lizard’s tail, Saururus cernuus

The vegetation seemed even thicker than normal as I scanned the marsh, but darting movements quickly caught my eye…dragonflies, and lots of them.

Halloween pennant

Halloween pennant balancing on a stem

Blue dasher

Blue dasher in obelesk position – a handstand-like posture used frequently by males of this species when guarding territory. It may also reduce their temperature on sunny days by minimizing their surface area exposed to direct sun rays.

Golden-winged skimmer, male

Golden-winged skimmer, male

This male golden-winged skimmer was close to the edge of the canal and patrolling frequently, returning to the same stem each time.  Suddenly, he made a quick move into a thicket of stems and stopped. I leaned in and could see he had found a mate and had assumed the position – the so-called wheel position.

Golden-winged skimmers in wheel position

Golden-winged skimmer in wheel position

Males transfer sperm to a specialized pouch in their second abdominal segment. They then grab a female by the head (or “neck”) and she curls the tip of her abdomen up to where he has stored his sperm. It lasted several seconds and then they briefly flew in tandem before she broke off and started laying eggs. She does a quick splash into the water with the tip of her abdomen, laying an egg with each dip. He stayed nearby guarding her from any other males that might be in the vicinity.

indigo bunting male singing

Indigo bunting singing

While sitting there in a cloud of dragonflies, I began to see and hear a lot of songbird activity. I didn’t make much effort to photograph them until this male indigo bunting perched nearby singing his heart out. Some other species of note included a blue grosbeak, great blue herons, wood ducks, yellow-billed cuckoos, prothonotary warblers, great-crested flycatchers, several northern bobwhite, some wild turkey, killdeer, and lots of red-winged blackbirds and common grackles. But, as hoped, this day turned out to be about something else…

black bear sow with two cubs

Bear sow with two cubs of the year (so-called COYs)

Though skunked by bears for the first hour, I quickly made up for it. Driving along Pat’s Road I found a field with six bears, (including a sow with 3 tiny cubs) scattered out in the open feeding on the sparse vegetation and maybe some leftover corn on the ground from last winter. I went around to the back edge of the field and watched. Soon, another sow with 2 cubs of the year came out closer to me. The heat of the day made for less than ideal atmospheric conditions for photos (especially with my bigger lenses) with many soft images the result. But it was great being able to watch these bears do their thing, the youngsters sticking close to mom, and her having to often lift a leg over one of them as it would get underfoot. I thought back a few weeks ago to seeing black bears with cubs in Yellowstone, along with 75 or more people along the road each time. It made me really appreciate the quiet and solitude of Pungo.

Bl;ack bear sow with cubs standing

She caught my scent and stood up. So did the first little one.

The mother bear finally headed off to the woods and, as she traveled, the young ones struggled a bit to keep up. At one point, she passed downwind of me and must have picked up my scent. She stopped, raised up, looking around to see where that human smell was coming from. One cub joined her and seemed to mirror every move she made as she looked this way and that.

Bl;ack bear sow with cubs standing 1

Looking where mom is looking

She finally dropped down and quickly got her youngsters to the safety of the woods. In the next thirty minutes my bear count went up to 14, all in the two fields on either side of where i stood.

female black bear with missing foot

Female bear , with company…

I decided to drive around a bit more as more of these bears starting heading for the shade of the forest. Less than a half-mile away I encountered my first really big bear of the day – a big boar courting a much smaller female. June and early July are the prime mating season for black bears at Pungo, so you tend to see more of the big males this time of year as they search for females that are receptive to mating. This female was limping as she walked and I finally realized she either had a deformity or was missing her entire left hind foot (look closely at the photo above).

large black bear boar

This huge boar was courting her all day, and he has the scars to prove he is worthy

The male following her was a bruiser – a big boy with plenty of battle scars.

_-3

Wherever she went, he followed

They crossed a canal into a field and munched away at things I could not see from my vantage point. Both bruins just ambled along, nibbling as they walked, with the male keeping close to the limping female. I was shooting a lot of images and suddenly remembered I had loaned all of my compact flash memory cards to Melissa for her Yellowstone trip. My camera has two card slots, one for each type of memory card. That is a great feature because you can just keep shooting if you run through one of your cards. And, if you are like me (with my old camera), I always ran out of memory right when something amazing was happening. But, today, I only had the one card in the camera. The male was getting closer and closer to the female and I thought they might mate at any time, so I decided to run back the 50 yards or so to the car and get another card. The bears were far enough away (and headed in the opposite direction), so I left my camera and telephoto lens there on the tripod as I ran back. I had my camera bag open at the car and was trying to find one of my other cards when I glanced back toward the bears and saw another huge bear come out of the woods not far from my camera. I think I actually yelled, Noooooo, and took off back toward my camera gear. The last thing I wanted was for a curious bear to knock it over into the canal or decide to test the toughness of my lens. By the way, I should remind everyone that I am taking these photos with a telephoto lens and I am attentive to what the bears are doing and how they are behaving. I don’t want to stress them (or myself) by getting too close.

Large male black bear close up

A handsome admirer soon showed up, trailing the female and her suitor

The new bear walked over to the edge of the canal, looked out at the other bears, and slowly turned and went back into the woods. But not before glancing at the panting human who was now standing next to his camera gear. This was another large male, but one that was much more handsome, lacking the many scars of the bigger fella out in the field. I am pretty sure he was trailing the female (he came out on the same pathway as they did), saw the bigger male, and thought better of it.

I drove through the refuge one more time and returned to the same spot where I had earlier seen so many bears. The fields did not disappoint and i soon had another 7 bears in view. Another large male cruised across the field and headed toward a small pond I had found while walking around earlier. I walked back to where I could cross a small canal and slowly headed that way, hoping to catch the bear cooling off in the water. When I got near, I could not see him or any ripple in the water, so I thought he had gone on by.  I started to walk past the pond when he suddenly rose up out of the water from behind some tall vegetation and climbed out.

Huge black bear boar after a dip

You looking at me?

He shook off, walked a few steps and then realized I was standing there watching. He gave me a glance that reassured me that I didn’t want to get any closer, and then ambled away.

huge male black bear

This big guy had a fresh battle scar on his rear

He looked like another warrior and had a big scar on his rump from a fairly recent fight. The other thing I noticed when I looked at most of the bear images back home was that almost every bear had an escort of several biting flies of one sort or another (you can see a big horsefly near the scar in the photo above). Life can be tough for bears (and humans) out here.

black bear family of 4

My last bears of the day, a family of four

My last bears of the day was a family of four, including 3 large cubs from a previous year (cubs are usually “kicked out” in their second year). The mother is the one facing the camera in the photo above. The group strolled back and forth across the field, munching on sprouting soybeans, and causing a few of the solo young bears nearby to abandon their feeding and head back into the woods. I ended the day with 21 different bears, including 5 cubs of the year (with two different sows) and 4 large boars. It was a hot, sweaty day, but one well worth it. Ah, summer at Pungo…can’t wait to go back!

 

 

Our Yellowstone

In such surroundings – occasional as our visits may be – we can achieve that kind of physical and spiritual renewal that comes alone from the wonder of the natural world.

~Laurence Rockefeller

To celebrate our wedding, Melissa and I did something we have never done – went to our favorite place, without a group. While we have had a day or two to ourselves here and there over the years, we were always prepping for a group’s arrival. This time, it was just us, and we were going to do another first – camp and backpack in Yellowstone. Even though I have been there over 40 times, I had never camped in the park or backpacked. So, this was going to be something special…except the weather decided maybe we needed a reminder of our inability to control things in this amazing landscape. It decided to rain, and rain, and rain a bit more. An entire day of rain on our first full day in the park and that was something I had never experienced in all my trips. But, it turned out to be just fine as we had a chance to spend time with friends and relax a bit, which has always been tough when leading a group.

Here are a few of the highlights of our time in our shared paradise (oh, and I just returned from dropping Melissa off at 4 a.m. at the airport so she can lead a trip to Yellowstone with a youth group from the museum, lucky her)…

eagle nest cliff

The Slough Creek cliffs held a special treat again this year (click photos to enlarge)

Golden eagle in nest

Golden eagle nest on cliff face

It was a great trip for birds…

Swainson's hawk with snake

Swainson’s hawk carrying a snake

White-faced ibis

White-faced ibis

Yellow warbler

Yellow warbler at the beaver pond

Cliff swallows in rain

The cliff swallows had just returned and did not seem to appreciate the rain either

Tree swallow

Tree swallow eyeing the camera

Mountain bluebird male

A male mountain bluebird looking fine

Peregrine on nest close view

Peregrine falcon on her precarious nest on the edge of a cliff

peregrine nest

Peregrine nest location from overlook near Calcite Springs

immature bald eagle

Immature bald eagle

elk carcass and birds

Bald eagles and ravens on elk carcass in Soda Butte Creek

Other wildlife made an appearance as well…

red fox on snow 1

Red fox on snow field at Dunraven Pass

Pronghorn buck

Pronghorn buck surveying his domain

Pronghorn eyes from behind close up

Pronghorns can even survey the scene behind them due to the placement of their large eyes

coyote

Coyote on the prowl

bison and person

Sometimes signs are not enough

bison cown and calf

Newborn bison calf gets cleaned by mom

Black bear and cub in tree

This mom finally had to climb the tree to retrieve her baby

Black bear and cub

A discussion on tree-climbing behavior once they were back on the ground

And, as usual, the scenery was fantastic…

snow from Dunraven

Late season snow at Dunraven Pass

Daisy geyser and rainbow

Daisy geyser erupts creating a rainbow in the mist

bison and reflection

Reflections near Junction Butte

Rainbow at soda butte

Double rainbow along Soda Butte Creek

sunset along Lamar River

Sunset along the Lamar River

Full moon seting in Lamar Valleygg

Full moon setting in Lamar Valley

Guilty, or Not

Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many…

~Phaedrus

You may have noticed some long lapses in my blog posts. These past few weeks have been busier than usual, not so much for work, but for personal reasons – a wedding and honeymoon trip to Yellowstone (more on that soon). This post hails back to the couple of days after our wedding and the day before we headed to our favorite place (that “Y” park). One of the joys of living out here in the woods is being able to watch all sorts of wildlife in the yard. Chipmunks are a favorite of mine, so I was distressed when I went out one morning and saw a dead one lying on the walkway to the front door. I immediately blamed the neighbor’s cats (someone down the road has 4 or 5 outdoor cats that have been seen here in the yard a few times). I went over and inspected the victim – no obvious chew marks or injuries, but when I picked it up (I was wearing work gloves) I noticed some fur slid off quite easily, exposing a patch of skin. I told Melissa about it, fuming over the harm to wildlife done by outdoor cats, but speculated that another possibility was that a copperhead had bitten the chipmunk and was waiting for it to die before trailing it to dine.

I tossed the dead chipmunk over in the woods, determined to discuss this with the neighbor. A few minutes later, I was walking down the driveway, looked over, and saw a copperhead on the walkway where the chipmunk had been. I usually try to move copperheads from inside our deer fence (they seem to like to lie on our walkway, unfortunately) but this one quickly scurried into the thick vegetation when I tried to lift it with my homemade snake stick. Hoping to lure the snake back out, I retrieved the chipmunk and placed it back on the walkway. About 10 minutes later, I walked by and noticed the chipmunk was gone!

I walked over and saw a slight movement in the vegetation along the walkway…there was the copperhead starting to swallow its prey.

copperhead with chipmunk

Copperhead beginning to swallow an Eastern chipmunk (click photos to enlarge)

copperhead with chipmunk 3

Eye level view of copperhead lunch

copperhead with chipmunk 2

Note the flies on the carcass

Our friend, Jeff Beane (Museum herpetologist), discussed copperhead behavior in an article for Live Science back in 2014. In it, he described copperheads as being “mobile ambush predators.” Mostly, they get their prey by “sit-and-wait ambush”; however, they sometimes do hunt, using their heat-sensing pits to find prey. Primary prey includes mice and other small rodents, birds, lizards, small snakes, frogs, salamanders and certain large insects (especially cicadas and large caterpillars).

For small prey, copperheads will strike and hold the victim until it dies, and then swallow. For prey that presents a possible danger to the snake (like a rodent that could bite or scratch), it will strike, inject venom, and recoil quickly, allowing the victim to wander off. The venom breaks down blood cells and leads to circulatory collapse. The snake then trails the prey using a behavior known as SICS (strike-induced chemosensory searching). This involves searching movements of the snake’s head coupled with an elevated rate of tongue-flicking. A snake’s tongue collects particles in the air, and inserts them into its Jacobson’s organ in the roof of its mouth. Receptors then send a sensory message to the reptile’s brain. Research suggests that copperheads primarily track the scent of the envenomated tissues after a strike rather than just the scent of the prey itself.  I managed only a few photos before the snake pulled its meal back into the cover of the plants. I was amazed to see what I assume were several blowflies already on the carcass in way less than an hour from when I assume the chipmunk died. These flies seek out dead animals to lay their eggs on, where their larvae serve as important decomposers. A lot can happen just outside your door when you live in the woods!