Day-flyers

We are all naturally seekers of wonders. We travel far to see the majesty of old ruins, the venerable forms of the hoary mountains, great waterfalls, and galleries of art. And yet the world’s wonder is all around us; the wonder of setting suns, and evening stars, of the magic spring-time, the blossoming of the trees, the strange transformations of the moth…

~Albert Pike

We have a couple of species of native phlox (that I purchased at my last place of employment, the NC Botanical Garden) in our yard and this time of year it really puts on a show. It has also been attracting a few pollinators on these past few warm days. Most afternoons, the air space above our flowers is crowded with native bees, flies, butterflies, and other day-flyers.

Eastern tiger swallowtail on phlox

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring at phlox (click photo to enlarge)

Recently, the warmth brought out a different group of day-flyers…the day-flying moths. One afternoon, while sitting on the front porch, we saw a large, dark insect hovering at the phlox flowers and then zipping on to the next. It resembled a bee from a distance, but moved faster than the usual bumblebee. As I approached, I could see it was a species of day-flying moth, a Nessus Sphinx.

Nessus sphinx moth at phlox

I managed just a few pix of the Nessus Sphinx Moth (Amphion floridensis) before it whisked off

These rather robust moths are easily identified by their dark color and two bright yellow bands on their abdomen (which helps them look like a bee or wasp). Yesterday, I saw another one (same one?) hovering over the vegetation on our little slope of rock retaining wall that is a mish-mash of all sorts of vegetation, including two of this specie’s host plants – Virginia Creeper and Muscadine Grape. Here’s hoping for some larvae soon.

Hummingbird moth on phlox

Freshly eclosed Hummingbird Clearwing Moth, Hemaris thysbe. Look at those blueish highlights along the segments of the abdomen.

My favorite day-flyer of the week was a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth that had just eclosed (emerged from its pupa). Last September, I was collecting a few caterpillars (as always) for programs and this little guy started wandering off from its plant one day, so I placed it in a butterfly cage with a little tub of dirt. After a couple of days of wandering, it formed a pupa in the soil. It spent the winter (along with a few butterfly chrysalids and some other moth pupae) in our unheated workshop so as to have exposure to the cold temperatures. About once a week, I spritzed the container with water to keep them from drying out. This is the first of the crowd to emerge. I took it outside and set it on one of the phlox flowers to warm up. This is probably the most intense colors I have ever seen on one of these moths (because it is so fresh) and you can see why some people can mistake them for tiny hummingbirds as they hover around flowers. After a few minutes of sunbathing, the moth flew off. We have lots of their host plants (Coral Honeysuckle and species of Viburnum) in our yard, so I expect to find some caterpillars later this summer.

Nice Eyes

The eye is the jewel of the body.

~Henry David Thoreau

I hope you are enjoying Melissa’s wildflower observations. She will have more in coming days. But this morning I wanted to share something I found a few days ago and finally took the time to go photograph yesterday afternoon. We have a nest box out behind our fence in an open spot in the woods. Over the years it has had chickadees and wasps using it. I was walking by it a few days ago and opened it up to see if there was any nesting activity as yet. I pulled the nest cup out and it contained an old flattened chickadee nest (moss and hair on top). As I started to put the cup back in, I noticed movement in the back of the box – a huge jumping spider, probably the largest jumper I had ever seen. I made a mental note to come back with a camera. Well, it took two days for me to get back there and I assumed the spider might be gone, but when I opened it up…

jumping spider inside bluebird box

Jumping spider in silk sac inside bird house (click photos to enlarge)

…she was still there! She (and I am guessing she based on her size, females are larger than males) had constructed a loose silk sac in one corner and was peaking out. I wanted to get a better image but I didn’t want to lose in her the leaf debris, so I had brought a large piece of white mat board to photograph her on. But, I had to gently coax her out first, which was not easy. She really did not want to leave that box. She finally climbed onto the stick I was using to gently herd her and I brought her out. Of course, being what she is, she then jumped and I was able to catch her in my other hand.

jumping spider in hand

Jumping spider in my hand

She was a beauty, over a half an inch in length, bold markings on her abdomen, and the usual incredible jumping spider eyes. I lowered her onto the mat board, expecting her to dash off, but she just sat there and oriented toward me as I got down on the ground for a few shots.

canopy jumping spider

A closer look at the exquisite jumping spider

She turned out to be en excellent model, allowing me to take several images while just moving slightly from time to time as I moved around her.

front view 1

Here’s looking at you…

After a few minutes, I raised the mat board up to the entrance of the bird house, opened the door and gently blew on her. She took the hint and walked over and climbed back into the box. Back at my house, I picked up my copy of Spiders of the Carolinas, by L.L. Gaddy, and thumbed through the jumping spider section. It looks as though she is a Canopy Jumper, Phidippus otiosus. The large size and distinctive V-shaped pattern on the abdomen are diagnostic. This is a fairly common species in woodlands, so I am surprised I have never seen one (at least not one this large). I’ll be sure to check on her again, although, while I was trying to get her out of the box, a large queen bumblebee entered. I think she may be building a nest in the nest cup full of moss and hair. That may complicate my visits in the future.

canopy jumping spider face

Those eyes…and those lashes aren’t bad either.

Once again, there is so much beauty just outside our door.

Pale Green

Pay attention to what gets your attention.

~Gina Mollicone-Long

First, the answers to yesterdays Attention to Detail post… I’m sure many of you already knew the answers, but, just in case, here is what each of the images in yesterday’s post depicted:

  1. Sensitive Fern – the spore-containing capsules are round in this species.
  2. Foamflower – looking down at the spike of flowers of one of my springtime favorites.
  3. Silk highway left on a cherry tree trunk as a few hundred Eastern Tent Caterpillars venture out in search of feeding sites. They leave a trail of silk with chemical cues for others to follow to the best feeding areas.
  4. A twisted dried tendril from last year’s Muscadine Grape tangle on the fence.
  5. Looking down on some Flame Azalea buds about ready to burst into flower.
  6. Close up of a Dandelion puffball (seed head).
  7. A gathering of Eastern Tent Caterpillars on a Wild Cherry tree trunk.
  8. The tiny yellow flowers of Golden Alexander.
  9. The tip of a single flower on a Red Buckeye flower stalk.
  10. Larvae in a Spotted Salamander egg mass the day before they hatched.
  11. Cross Vine tendrils.
  12. An unopened flower bud of Dwarf Crested Iris.

Today was a truly beautiful day so I spent most of it outside doing some chores and just admiring the wildflowers. Surprisingly, not many photographs taken, so I am sharing something from a couple of days ago that I saw again this afternoon.

Pale green assassin bug on hickory bud

Nymph of a Pale Green Assassin Bug on a hickory bud (click photo to enlarge)

I spotted this little bug as I was walking past a hickory sapling. It seems I can’t walk by a leaf bud this time of year without pausing to glance to enjoy their amazing shapes and fullness as they prepare to burst. This one had a special treat, a tiny nymph of what I assumed was an assassin bug of some sort. I looked online and discovered it is most likely the nymph of a Pale Green Assassin Bug, Zelus luridus. Adults are a little over a half an inch long and prey on a variety of insects using that long beak to pierce them and suck out their fluids. But this group of assassins has a rather unique weapon in their bag of tricks – they secrete a viscous fluid from their front legs (and maybe also their second pair of legs), which helps secure their prey when they grab it. You can see a lot of pollen grains stuck to the legs (and other parts) of the nymph in the photo below.

Pale green assassin bug on hickory bud close up

Close up view showing the stalked hairs on the legs

I’m thinking this is not such a bad idea in these times of infrequent trips to the grocery store (our version of the assassin bug hunt). If you drop a cookie crumb it just sticks to your arm so you can retrieve it.

 

 

Attention to Detail

Details create the big picture.

~Sanford I. Weill

Back in the day, I worked for a truly remarkable visionary, Mary Ann Brittain. I learned a lot from her and (I think) we made a good team for the museum as educator/naturalists. I remember when I first started going on the road with her to do school grounds workshops all over the state, I was amazed at how she could take a long nap in the car (as I was driving), arrive about 15 minutes before the workshop, get out and race around the school building, and then be prepared to take a group of teachers out and show them what they could find and use to teach all sorts of subjects outside their classroom walls. Of course, I also figured out that I had to be sure to bring the essential supplies or they might get left behind. We soon came up with a moniker for ourselves – Broad-brush Brittain and Detail Dunn. Well, over the years, I learned some of her techniques for quickly assessing the potential subjects to share with others out in the field. I’m afraid I also started relying on others to help take care of the details (yes, Melissa, I know).

Though I occasionally (okay, maybe more than that) forget the details of a task, I still find the details of nature extraordinarily fascinating and beautiful. So, here are few up close looks at some details of spring in our yard. See if you can guess what each thing is before looking at the list at the end of the post. After your first guess, try to match a name on the list to a numbered photo (the names are not in the same order as the photos). Some are pretty obvious, others maybe not. Expect more of these nature in detail images in coming posts. Meanwhile, get outside and look closely at what nature is sharing each and every day.

Bead-like spore containing structures on Sensitive fern

#1 (click photos to enlarge)

top view of foam flower

#2

silk trail left by eastern tent caterpillars

#3

muscadine grape tendil from last year

#4

looking down on flame azalea buds

#5

dandelion puffball

#6

cluster of Eastern tent caterpillars

#7

close up of umbel of goldne alexander

#8

flower tip of red buckeye

#9

spotted salamander eggs near hatching close up

#10

tendril tips of cross vine

#11

dwarf crested iris flower bud

#12

The photos above show details of the following (match an ID with a number – answers tomorrow).

  • Golden Alexander flowers
  • Muscadine grape tendril (a threadlike part of climbing plants that attaches to or twines around another object to support the plant)
  • Azalea flower buds
  • Dwarf Crested Iris flower bud
  • Sensitive Fern spore-containing structures on last year’s dried fertile fronds
  • Spotted salamander eggs one day prior to hatching
  • Tendrils of Cross Vine
  • Cluster of Eastern Tent Caterpillars
  • Red Buckeye flower
  • Foamflower
  • Silk highway from Eastern Tent Caterpillars
  • Dandelion seed head

The End Result of Butterfly Courtship

Paying attention to the world around you will help you develop the extraordinary capacity to look at mundane things and see the miraculous.

~Michael Mikalko

Last week I did a post on the courtship behavior and egg-laying by Falcate Orangetip butterflies in our yard. I watched a female lay two eggs on two different plants of Hairy Bittercress, a common yard weed in the mustard family.

Falcate orangetip egg

Falcate Orangetip egg laid on March 20 (click photos to enlarge)

Times being what they are, I figured I would dig up a couple of the plants that had eggs on them and bring them inside to observe. I have never found one of the incredible thorn-mimic chrysalids of this species (they are tiny and apparently really blend into branches and tree trunks), so I thought this might be my chance if I could keep these little guys alive long enough. Most butterfly eggs I have watched hatch in just a few days, so I was getting worried when a week had gone by and nothing had happened. Each morning I pulled the now potted weeds out of the butterfly cage and examined them with a hand lens to see if the egg had hatched. Finally, yesterday morning (March 30)…

hatched egg of falcate orangetip

The remnants of one of the butterfly eggs; the other egg was apparently totally eaten by the larva.

…both eggs had hatched – about 11 days after they were laid! The first plant had about half of the egg shell remaining. When I searched the other plant, there was no egg casing at all. That is pretty typical since many butterfly and moth hatchlings will eat their egg shell right after emerging.

Falcate orangetip larva first instar 2 days old

The tiny first instar larva of a Falcate Orangetip butterfly.

It took some searching with a magnifier to find each of the new larvae. They are only about 2 mm in length and have tiny hairs scattered on their body with what looks like a drop of liquid at the tip of each hair. This may be some sort of predator deterrent. I found both larvae feeding on a developing seed pod of their respective plants. With the month ahead being one of mainly home-bound observations, I’ll keep tabs on these guys and try to provide an occasional update on their progress and changes (because I know you just need to know:).

 

Haw River Saunter

…whenever I felt emotionally overwhelmed, I would take a walk in the woods. Being in the stillness and grandeur of trees had always calmed me.

~Brenda Strong

We hiked (I suppose sauntered is a better word, really) along a short section of the Haw River with some good friends on Saturday (practicing social distancing, of course). It was a beautiful day and spring was putting on a display of varied forest greens, buzzing insects, and bird calls. I carried my 300mm telephoto (and some extension tubes), hoping to get some bird pics, but ended up using it as a long distance macro lens instead.

spring beauties

Spring Beauties are abundant in the woods bordering the river and small tributary (click photos to enlarge)

giant chickweed

Giant Chickweed provided a delicate display in scattered locations along the trail.

The start of the trail meanders through a tangle of invasive species for a few hundred feet before opening up into a beautiful forest dotted with spring wildflowers. Spring Beauties and Giant Chickweed were abundant and the bright greens of new tree leaves painted a hopeful picture in these challenging times. We saw numerous butterflies (Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Falcate Orange-tip, Cloudless Sulphur, Eastern Comma, some Duskywings) and heard (well, at least Melissa and Deb heard) a variety of birds, including many spring migrants (Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Louisiana Waterthrush).

Cicada nymph uncovered 1

At the edge of the creek, someone had moved a rock, revealing a cicada nymph’s chamber.

But, on any saunter, we usually notice a lot of the small things, the things that blend into the background. I’ve never really been a fast hiker, and now, with some knee issues, my pace is interrupted with occasional sitting on a trail side rock or log. This gives me plenty of time to notice and appreciate the details of the woods.

Carolina anole

A Carolina Anole in its early spring brown suit.

toad

Your identification quiz for the day – which species is this?

Of course, sometimes I miss that which is right next to me. Melissa spotted this toad next to a spot where I was sitting. It remained perfectly still and allowed a few profile portraits. We discussed our opinions as to which species this might be (American and Fowler’s Toads are the common species in these parts) but they occasionally hybridize, making identification difficult. What do you think, and why? See this link and this one for some ID tips.

Six-spotted tiger beetle blue morph

I have not seen many of these beetles that are bright blue instead of the usual metallic green.

As we departed, Deb spotted a shiny beetle in a sunny spot on the trail. When she called out, I assumed it would be a Six-spotted Tiger Beetle, a common species in our area in that type of setting. They are usually brilliant metallic green with a few white spots on the dorsal surface. But this beetle was a bright blue! But, looking online at a couple of resources, I think it is just a color variant of that species. It does have a couple of faint white spots on its back and there are examples of a blue coloration in some individuals of this species. Nature is nothing if not beautiful, and variable.

Outside Our Door

…it places its nest at a great height, sometimes fifty feet, attaching it to the twigs of a forked branch. Here the nest is small, thin but compact, composed of the slender stems of dried grasses mixed with coarse fibrous roots and the exuviae of caterpillars or other insects, and lined with the hair of the deer, moose, racoon, or other animals, delicate fibrous roots, wool, and feathers.

~John James Audubon

Audubon called this little bird the Pine-creeping Wood Warbler because of its preference for pine trees and its feeding habits – creeping along the branches and trunks searching for insects. It is the common winter warbler in our woods and readily comes to our suet feeders, often in group of three or four at a time (I have seen as many as seven at once waiting to get to the suet cage). Now that is nesting season, they are less frequent visitors. Instead, we are hearing the male’s trill throughout the day as he defends territory. According to research online, surprisingly little is known of the nesting behavior of this common warbler, probably because of its propensity to nest high (30 – 75 ft) out on the branches of pine trees.

But this week, a female has been visiting a patch in our vegetable garden just outside our kitchen door. I saw her on three occasions, gathering nesting material in the same spot. She intently picked through the straw, leaves, and old stems in about a one square foot spot, filled her beak, and then flew off. We watched as she made a couple of stops (typical behavior as the female heads toward her nest site so as to not give away where it is located) and then disappeared across the road to a stand of tall pines about a hundred yards away. On one of her visits, I slowly cracked open the kitchen door, stood on my tip toes to get over the edge of the side porch, pointed the camera down and took a few images as she searched.

pine warbler gathering nesting materials

Pine warbler gathering nesting material (click photo to enlarge)

 

 

Alien Life Form Answer

There were a lot of interesting guesses and a couple of what I believe to be correct answers. I will preface this post with the disclaimer that I am certainly no expert on fungi (or anything else, for that matter) , but here is what I think our mystery photo is…

alien yard item

Starfish Fungus (aka Anemone Stinkhorn), Aseroe rubra.

I thought it was a stinkhorn of some sort when Beth sent me the photo, but this is one I have never seen. This unusual species is native to Australia and some tropical islands but has been introduced to other parts of the world, most likely through in garden or soil products. In the U.S., it is found primarily in Hawaii and a few southeastern states.

It feeds on decaying organic matter and is usually found growing in yards or compost. I think the diagnostic feature for me is the bifurcate appendages – the split ends on the arms of the “starfish”. Some other stinkhorns just have single extensions at the tips. Check this link for more information on this bizarre species. As always, if someone has other suggestions on the identity of this life form, please drop me a comment. Thanks for participating and thanks again, to Beth, for sharing her yard alien with us.

Alien Life Form?

I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe
is that none of it has tried to contact us.

~Bill Watterson

Today’s mystery comes to us courtesy of Beth Howard, a friend and teacher extraordinaire in the Wilmington area. She found this in her yard and sent me a pic hoping I could help her figure out what it is and whether she needed to sell her house. In her message she asked – What the heck is this? Is it some kind of alien life form or a carnivorous plant? That is a tunnel down through it.”

So, what do you think, and why? I’ll give you one clue…it smells a bit bad.

alien yard item

Alien life form or…? (click photo to enlarge) (photo by Beth Howard)

Melissa and I are happy to try to help solve your natural history mysteries (especially if you will allow me to post about it in this blog), so feel free to send me pictures of your alien life forms to roadsendnaturalist@gmail,com.

Cherry Tree Mystery Answer

We had a few good observations and comments on our mystery post from yesterday. Deb noticed the silk strand in one of the images (reprinted below) which made her suspect some sort of silk-spinning critter. That pretty much limits what type of animal since the only two groups of terrestrial critters I know that can spin silk are spiders and caterpillars. Of course, it could also be that a spider or caterpillar just happened to go by this spot before I took the photo.

cherry tree mystery 2

The single strand of silk in yesterday’s pic is one possible clue (click photos to enlarge)

The other clue I intended for you to see was the pic with the tiny hole in the emerging cherry leaf (see below). This indicates something has been feeding on the emerging leaf bud, again, hinting at the possibility of a caterpillar or some other vegetarian insect.

Pistol casebearer, Colephora sp.

Notice the tiny hole chewed in the leaf.

As I mentioned in my last post, I have seen these critters in previous springs. I observed them slowly moving on the cherry twigs with a head and some legs protruding out the end. As I recall, I assumed it was a caterpillar based on what I could see, and then I looked online for caterpillars in swirled casings. I found images of what I now believe is a type of Pistol Casebearer Moth larvae, Coleophora sp. Below are a couple of closer images of these interesting larval cases.

Pistol casebearer, Colephora sp. 2

Two of the mystery critters on a wild cherry twig.

Pistol casebearer, Colephora sp. 1

A close-up of a Pistol Casebearer Moth larval case (Coleophora sp.).

There are hundreds of species of Coleophora moths in the U.S. and several are called Pistol Casebearers due to the resemblance of the spiral-shaped larval case to old-time pistols. Based on my web search, this one could be Colephora atromarginata, because of the host plant (cherry) and the shape of the case. But, according to the online expert, it would take dissection of the gentalia of the adult moth to be sure (oh well…). Caterpillars of this group construct cases of silk, plant material, and frass (caterpillar poop). I think the small brown clumps you can see on the outside of the case are frass pellets. The silk is hardened by an unknown secretion (giving it the black color) and is enlarged as the larva grows (giving the case that segmented appearance). The caterpillars never leave their case and carry it with them as the crawl around on the host plant (much like a snail). When ready to pupate, they use a heavy pad of silk to attach their case to a substrate. They then turn around inside the case and eventually emerge out the back end of the case into a tiny moth. If this is the species I think it is, it overwinters as a caterpillar inside these cases, which explains why they are already this large just as their host plant leaves are emerging.

For a great video of a casebearer larva moving about, check out the incredible work of Sam Jaffe at The Caterpillar Lab. Sam is doing an amazing job of helping people see the magic all around us in the world of caterpillars.

I hope you enjoyed this mystery and we will have another challenge tomorrow.