First of Season

Camouflage is the most interesting of all the arts.

~Kris Saknussemm

I sometimes feel like we live in the jungle. Looking out across the small sunny area around the house you see a green wall of vegetation before the tall trees of the forest begin. The yard itself is a tangle of all sorts of wildflowers and shrubs, layer upon layer, with years of accumulated leaves in between the green patches. Being at home so much this spring has given me a rare opportunity to actually do some tidying up (also known as weeding). Now, don’t get me wrong, I actually like the wild look, but there are unwanted species (like Microstegium) that tend to infiltrate everywhere and then some wanted species that like to take over if not watched. But, here in the hood, I try to be careful about where I put my hands and feet in this jumble of greenery because of one local resident in particular, the Copperhead. Yesterday found me repairing a patch of deer fence where a dead snag had fallen during the heavy rains. As I was walking through the woods dodging tree branches with my armload of tools I thought…Jeesh, it is hard to watch where you step in here, and they blend in so well with these leaves. Well, an hour or so later, I walked down the road to check on something, and on my way back, there was the first of the season, out in plain sight, where its usually incredibly effective camouflage was not so effective.

IMG_8690

First Copperhead of the season (click photos to enlarge)

This one was particularly beautiful, with a bright, contrasting pattern of dark and light colors. As I approached, it flattened its body in what I assume is a defensive posture (to make it look bigger perhaps?) and remained motionless (one of their usual defensive modes). I took a few images with my phone and then walked back the hundred feet or so to the gate to our driveway to get my real camera. When I returned, the road was empty.

IMG_8691

Distinctive traits include a vertical pupil, the pit between the eye and nostril, and the Hershey Kisses-shaped pattern along the sides (like hourglasses when viewed from above)

I walked into the woods where the snake had been headed, only to see nothing but leaves. At least, that was all I could perceive. The snake was now back in its element – advantage Copperhead.

Not a Feather

Wide, curved, tall or long, so many shapes but none are wrong.

~Hermione Little

It is a little harder (or at least less pleasant) to explore our yard and woodlands during a deluge like we have had the past few days. But, I was out filling bird feeders in the rain when a light-colored shape in the flowers caught my eye.

Plume moth

Plume moth resting in its characteristic T-shape position (click photos to enlarge)

As I got nearer, I recognized its distinctive T-shape as belonging to a plume moth. These unusual moths rest with their wings held out at a right angle to their slender body looking somewhat like an old airplane profile. These narrow wings actually are pleated or lobed and fold out wider when in flight.

Plume moth detail

Detail of wing

I looked in my field guides and online and am pretty sure this is the Groundsel Plume Moth (aka Baccharis Borer Plume Moth), Hellinsia balanotes, due its large size. As a group, they can be difficult to identify to genus or species, but this one had a wingspan the size of a quarter (greater than 30mm). Most plume moths are half that size.

Plume moth top view

Looking down on this unusual moth

The larvae of many plume moths bore into the stems of various shrubs and wildflowers or are leafrollers. The unusual shape of the adults is said to help them camouflage themselves when at rest in vegetation during the day as they tend to look more like dried plant stems than a tasty moth. Whatever the reason, they make for an interesting discovery on a rainy day (this moth stayed in this spot all day in spite of my intrusion).

 

Discoveries

The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.

~Mark Van Doren

Melissa was producing a short video on trees as part of her museum educational offerings for teachers when she made a fascinating discovery. While filming the segment, she was encouraging folks to observe trees in their neighborhood and look for interesting things living on them. When she grabbed a hickory leaf and looked at it, she found one of my favorite spiders – a Magnolia Green Jumper (Lyssomanes viridis). We have a lot of these beautiful little jumping spiders in our yard and woods, but this was one even more exciting than usual as it has just molted.

Magnolia Green Jumper and shed 2

Magnolia Green Jumper next to its old shed exoskeleton (click photos to enlarge)

Magnolia Green Jumper shed

Recent shed of a Magnolia Green Jumper

I have posted on these amazing arthropods a couple of times in the past, But here was a spider shed and a freshly molted spider together on the leaf where this magic had just occurred. If you look closely, you can see how the spiders’ cephalothorax (the fused first two body parts) pops open during the molting process and the old legs split open. The spider is then able to pull itself out of its old skin as a larger version of itself. Some spiders hang from a silk thread when they do this, but it looks like this species makes a silk pad to anchor its old body, and then crawls out as a new spider.

Magnolia Green Jumper on leaf

Freshly molted male Magnolia Green Jumper

This one is a male as you can see by the enlarged tips to its pedipalps (those appendages that look like two short legs right in front of its face). Male spiders typically have swollen tips (often described as boxing gloves) that they transfer their sperm to before mating. I guess it is safer to keep your distance during courtship if you are a male spider (especially since you are usually smaller than your ravenous mate). After a couple of shots, I brought the spider inside for a photo shoot in my collapsible white box. I’m still learning the tricks of photographing on white backgrounds, but it does often highlight details you may not otherwise notice.

Magnolia Green Jumper on white background

Magnolia Green Jumper posing inside a white box

One of the issues in a white box is the creatures don’t tend to take direction very well, but this little guy finally settled and looked straight at me for a couple of quick portraits.

Magnolia Green Jumper on white background close up

The impressively large anterior median eyes (those two large eyes on front) of a Magnolia Green Jumper

One of the things I love the most about these spiders is how it is really easy to see the retinas in the large eyes on front move around inside as they spider looks around (the lenses are fixed to the the carapace, but the retinas inside can be moved by tiny muscles). When the eyes become dark, the spider is looking directly at you (I think this guy is looking at my pandemic haircut). After a couple more shots, I took him back outside to patrol the yard in his new duds.

 

 

Red and Black

Without black, no color has any depth…

~Amy Grant

A simple post this morning of something I rarely see, a top side view of a male Scarlet Tanager. They are still visiting the mulberry tree out back and have consumed all the easy to reach berries, so they are exhibiting some impressive acrobatics to snag the remaining fruit. This provides some great views of their amazing color scheme.

Scarlet tanager male dorsal view

Dorsal view of a male Scarlet Tanager (click photo to enlarge)

Still Hanging

Red is the ultimate cure for sadness. 

~Bill Blass

I’ve been working in the shop on a project and, as was the case last week, the tanagers are still at it, although the mulberry supply is dwindling fast. I am surprised at how tolerant they are as I walk to and from the shop door, but I am happy they allow me to take a break from my chores and admire their redness. Here are a couple of shots of a male Scarlet Tanager that was chowing down on the berries yesterday. By the way, I think I have now seen at least three separate males in this tree based on their slight differences in yellow patches.

Scarlet tanager male in leaves

Male Scarlet Tanager scoping the branches for fruit (click photos to enlarge)

Scarlet tanager reaching for berry

The berries that were easy to reach are mostly gone now, so it requires a little extra effort to grab one

Scarlet tanager getting berry

The birds are hanging upside down or flying up from underneath the branch to grab berries

Scarlet tanager eating berry

They usually pull off berry and stem and then perch nearby to chew up the berry and spit out the stem

Mulberry Moments

Green gives and red receives. Nature is colour coded!

~Sonali Mohan

Some of you may have known him, and, even if you didn’t, you may have one of his bluebird boxes in your yard. Jack Finch started a non-profit, Homes For Bluebirds, to help restore his beloved Eastern Bluebird to the skies of the southeast. He built thousands of quality bluebird nest boxes and was tireless in his efforts to promote ways to enhance bluebird populations. When I worked at the museum, I made frequent trips out to his farm to purchase nest boxes for schools and to talk about bluebirds. He was always experimenting with ways to provide more food for bluebirds from raising mealworms to selecting for late blooming dogwoods that would produce berries later into the season. For awhile, he promoted mulberry trees as a food source, and that is how I ended up with a sapling many years ago.  I planted it in what was then a sunny spot near my shop, and now, the tree produces berries every spring for the local wildlife. I hope Jack would not be disappointed that his tree has more green and red than blue.

It turns out that Scarlet Tanagers are frequent visitors and berry pickers in this tree every spring. This week, as I was going in and out of the shop while tinkering on some woodworking projects, I kept seeing tanagers feeding. So, I brought out the camera, set up the tripod at the door, got comfortable in a chair, and waited.

Male scarlet tanager with berry

Male Scarlet Tanager eating a mulberry (click photos to enlarge)

Scarlet tanager female reaching for berry

Female Scarlet Tanager reaching for a berry

Female scarlet tanager

Female Scarlet Tanager in a rare spot of sunlight in the branches

The tree leans out over the driveway and has one branch down low at eye level. There are only a few spots where a bird can perch that present a clear shot through the branches and leaves, but it was great fun watching them come and go. They are active feeders in that they often have to flutter their wings to maintain their balance while reaching out to the twig tips for berries, adding to the photography challenges.

male scarlet tanager 1

This male landed in spot where the green background provided a nice contrast to his brilliant red plumage

At first, I was usually seeing a pair, a male and female, coming together. On one visit, another male showed up! And a few seconds later, a male Summer Tanager flew in (but avoided having his picture taken), along with what I first thought was an immature male Summer Tanager. It had a lot of yellow coloration mixed with the red. In reading online, it seems that some older females may have a lot of red overtones (females are usually yellow), and this one’s colors are more blended than patchy. I’m not exactly sure which sex this one is, but now I’m leaning towards a female, as the immature males I have seen in the past were more splotchy.

Immature male tanager

A Summer Tanager with a lot of red and yellow coloration

That certainly was a highlight of my mulberry viewing – five tanagers at once! In between tanager feedings, I saw a lot of other species going about their daily routines.

female cardinal

This female Northern Cardinal stopped in for a quick visit

Swainson's thrush

A Swainson’s Thrush was feeding on the few remaining American Holly berries on a nearby tree

Wood thrush

A pair of Wood Thrush made regular foraging trips to the area just outside the shop

ovenbird

An Ovenbird calling nearby finally came for a quick visit

Chipmunk watching me

An Eastern Chipmunk, with both cheeks full, sat and watched me for about 5 minutes before deciding I was safe and moving on

A few notables that I saw but didn’t get photos for included Chipping Sparrows, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, the family of Carolina Wrens that fledged from inside my shop, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Blue Jays, a Red-tailed Hawk, and a Black-throated Blue Warbler. But, the stars of the show are definitely the male Scarlet Tanagers.

side view male scarlet tanager

The red is so intense on a male Scarlet Tanager that it makes a cardinal almost seem pale

I think Thoreau summed it up nicely in his description of a male Scarlet Tanager…

The tanager flies through the green foliage as if it would ignite the leaves.

 

 

Transformation

We delight in the beauty of a butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.

~Maya Angelou

Remember how excited I was to finally photograph a chrysalis of a Falcate Orangetip butterfly in that post a few days ago? Well, I kept watch on the remaining caterpillars, hoping to catch one in the act of transformation, and got lucky again. One morning when I checked on the larvae, I found one in its prepupa stage. That is the stage between a free-living caterpillar and its pupa (chrysalis). A butterfly larva usually finds a sheltered spot and attaches itself to a twig or leaf (or whatever it usually forms its chrysalis on) with silk. In many groups, the prepupa hangs down below something (like a monarch in its J-shaped prepupa). For this species (and swallowtails), it attaches itself at the rear end with silk and then forms a loop of silk that it slips its head through. The position reminds me of a telephone line worker attached to a pole with a safety harness. The prepupa stage usually lasts about 24 hours for the species I have observed, so I set up a photo chamber with the prepupa in it, and waited.

photo chamber

My dining room macro studio with light box, LED light for video, camera and flash for stills (click photos to enlarge)

By the way, I want to thank Sam Jaffe of The Caterpillar Lab for his suggestion of the Folio brand portable light box as a tool for photographing insects. It has its own LED light strips and changeable background colors. And it looks good on a dining room table in times when no one can come to dinner.

The prepupa had formed during the night, so I anticipated it would be the next morning before it transformed. The first one managed to transform during the early morning hours before even I get up. This one was more obliging, and the next morning was still a prepupa, but starting to move slightly. I got some coffee and waited…for the next 30 minutes or so it just made slight wriggles. Then the C-shape started to straighten out, and I knew, from watching swallowtail prepupa do this, that things were about to happen. The video clip below shortens what took about 15 minutes to occur into 1 minute. The footage is at 5X the actual speed and I edited out clips to shorten it. I’ll let this amazing act speak for itself…

Success

To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.

~Mary Oliver

twig with chrysalis

This is what I am very excited about (read on) (click photos to enlarge)

I imagine many of you already suspect me to be, shall we say, a nature nerd. This post probably will prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt. You may recall a post a few weeks back where I photographed a pair of one of my favorite spring butterflies, the Falcate Orangetip, doing some courtship flights, and, later, finding where a female had laid eggs.

Falcate orangetip butterflies mating behavior 1

Courting pair of Falcate Orangetip butterflies from late March

I mentioned I have always wanted to find and photograph one of their unusual chrsyalids, but, in spite of searching for them near some of their host plants (the wild version is Cutleaf Toothwort) on our property most springs, I had yet to succeed. So, when I found a female laying eggs back in March, I dutifully collected a couple of their weedy version of host plant (Hairy Bittercress) containing eggs, potted up the plants, and brought them inside to observe. Finally, on March 30, the first of what I thought were two collected eggs, hatched. Here is that post. What I learned over the next few weeks is that these guys are very slow eaters, and that the bittercress starts to dry up in the pots and yard before the caterpillars seemingly have time to complete their cycle.

Falcate Orange-tip caterpillar late stages on white background

Falcate Orangetip caterpillar, two weeks after hatching

So, I started collecting bittercress plants from the yard and putting them in floral tubes with water as a food source for what I soon discovered were five larvae. The two eggs I had originally collected hatched first, but there were some unseen eggs that hatched later, perhaps on plants I brought in as food.

Falcate Orange-tip caterpillar late stages

They fed for another two weeks and then…

The two large larvae kept feeding and growing and I was worried I would run out of decent bittercress plants as a food source. Then, on April 29, I checked the plants and found one of the large larvae had formed a prepupa (the stage between a caterpillar and a chrysalis). It was in a pose similar to a swallowtail prepupa, with the rear attached to a silk pad, the front of the caterpillar passing through another silk loop, and the whole body curled in a C-shape (or maybe more like an apostrophe)..

Falcate Orange-tip prepupa

On April 29, I found one caterpillar had made a prepupa

Over my years of raising caterpillars for programs, I have witnessed many prepupa transform to the chrysalis (it is really magical to watch). The prepupa stage usually lasts about 24 hours, so I Imagined it would transform overnight or early the next morning. I photographed it and left it sitting out on our dining room table/macro studio, hoping to catch it in the act of transforming. I checked on it once in the middle of the night, but it was still in the same position. Close to the time they shed the last caterpillar skin to reveal the newly formed chrysalis underneath, the prepupa starts to shudder and then straighten out. Then it happens quickly, usually within a matter of minutes. As it turned out, this prepupa decided to complete its performance sometime in the wee hours of the morning, so when I awoke and checked on it about 7 a.m., the chrysalis was already there.

Falcate Orange-tip chrysalis

When I woke up the next morning, success!

But, I had finally succeeded in seeing one of their strange thorn-mimic chrysalids. No wonder I have never found one. Look at the first photo in this blog again and you can see how well this chrysalis blends in to a tree trunk or twig, the usual places in the forest where it is formed.

Falcate OrangeTip chrysalis with pencil eraser for scale

The chrysalis with a pencil eraser for scale

Plus, it is a pretty small, cryptically-colored chrysalis, making it even more challenging. Needless to say, I was geeking out when Melissa came into the dining room (the things she puts up with…although she thought it was pretty cool as well). With a few larvae still feeding, I might have a shot at witnessing the transformation, I’ll keep checking and building my nerd street cred.

Beginning as Poop

Question: What is the white stuff in bird poop?

Answer: That is bird poop, too.

~Kurt Vonnegut

This is an update to an image I posted a week or so ago about new beginnings in the yard this spring. I found and photographed an egg of an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on a Tulip Poplar leaf (their most common host plant in our woods)…

eastern tiger swallowtail egg on tulip poplar

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail egg laid on Tulip Poplar leaf on April 12 (click photos to enlarge)

I was surprised how long it took for the egg to hatch, but hatch it did on April 28. It turned dark a day or two before hatching. I went out this morning to check on the larva and it has spun a tiny silk pad on top of the leaf where it stays put much of the day. You can see from the picture that it crawled off an inch or so to feed.

Eastern tiger swallowtail first instar larva

This little larva is now 3 -days old

The larva is currently about the size of a pencil point and has the characteristic black and white markings of early instar swallowtail caterpillars. This is believed to be a bird poop mimic coloration. By sitting still most of the day, they really do look like a little bird turd (and what self-respecting bird would want to eat that?).

Over the next couple of weeks, if all goes well, the caterpillar will dine at the Tulip Tree Cafe, molt a few times, and grow up to be a snake mimic larva with small fake eye spots.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail larva late instar swelling anterior po

Late instar larva changes from being bird poop to a snake mimic

 

 

 

Singing in the Rain

I’m happy again
I’m singin’ and dancing in the rain
I’m dancing and singin’ in the rain

~Lyrics from Singing in the Rain by Arthur Freed & Nacio Herb Brown

I will admit to not quite feeling that happy to wake up to the downpour this morning, but somebody did. At least, they seemed happy right after the deluge stopped. I looked out the kitchen door to check on our little vegetable garden (one of the few down sides of living in our woods is a lack of sun for vegetables, so the garden is small) and spotted something on one of the fence posts.

Garden

Our veggie garden as seen from the kitchen door (click photos to enlarge)

It was our resident male Carolina Wren singing his little heart out. He looked a bit ruffled after all the rain, but he was determined to let everything know he was in good spirits. I grabbed the camera with the telephoto on it and eased out onto the side porch. The only view of him I had was through a small circular gap in the pea plants growing on the line trellis. He serenaded the world for a couple of minutes, dancing his way around the fence top to make sure no matter where you were in the yard, you could hear his loud tea- kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle lyrics. So, here is Mr. Wren, singin’ and dancing in the rain…

Carolina wren singing right

Carolina Wren in full song mode

Carolina wren singing right 1

After a brief shake (in which he lost a feather), the song resumes

Carolina wren singing

Here’s looking at you

Carolina wren singing left

Okay, I can move on now