Grubosaurus Update

You always end up getting involved in things because of, you know, the strange things your life brings you into contact with.

~Edward Norton

I have had a couple of unusual “pets” these past few months. You may recall in an earlier post, I reported on receiving some orphaned Eastern Hercules Beetle grubs one day at work.

Eastern hercules beetle grubs

Eastern Hercules Beetle grubs (click photos to enlarge)

A woman brought them in after they were discovered in the hollow of a large tree she had taken down in her yard. She wasn’t sure what they were, but hoped someone at the Garden could tell her and might take them. The front desk volunteer apparently thought, Hmmm, who here would want something like this?…Oh, Mike, he probably would. And that is how I came to have two large grubs in a flower pot of rotten log and topsoil on our screen porch since late March. They are pretty easy pets to take care of – I checked them once or twice a week, spritzing the soil surface each time with a little water to prevent them from drying out. A few times over the summer, I refreshed their rotten log food supply with decayed wood and a couple of apple slices. On several occasions, I showed them to a few house guests (we have tolerant friends) and to visitors during some programs at work. The last time I did this was about two weeks ago for a group of summer camp kids. To do this, I gently poured the soil out into another bucket to reveal the grubs. On the last pour, I noticed one of the grubs had made what looked like a chamber in the soil (it was an impression in the soil about the size of a large chicken egg). I should have known what was about to happen, but it didn’t register at the time.

This past Sunday afternoon, I went out to once again spritz them with water, and when I lifted the lid off the bucket, I was amazed (and a little startled at first) at what I saw…

Eastern Hercules Beetle pupa

The alien on our porch, the pupa of an Eastern Hercules Beetle

…and it moved! It’s alive! One of the grubs transformed into a bizarre-looking pupa. This will become a male beetle, as evidenced by the horns, which apparently are quite fragile in the pupal stage. The impression I had seen in the soil a couple of weeks ago was the start of a pupation chamber. The larvae make these one to two weeks prior to pupating. I was probably lucky that my disturbance of the soil had not disrupted this transformation.

The reference I bought talked about this delicate life stage, but did not give information on how long the pupa stage lasts. Another web search found a site that summarized the life stages of the Eastern Hercules Beetle (from the University of Kentucky Critter Files on Eastern Hercules Beetles):

Adult longevity: Typically 3-6 months. The rare adult will live up to a year plus.

Egg-laying to egg hatch: 1 month

Egg hatch to pupation: 12-18 months

Pupation to emergence: 2-3 months, depending on temperature

Emergence of teneral adults to fully-formed adults: About 1 month

I am amazed at the life span of these amazing insects. It looks like I will have these pupae until December or so, when they will emerge as adult beetles. But, they apparently remain in the soil for a month or more while they harden their exoskeleton and change to the adult coloration. Stay tuned. I really want to have one of these giant beetles (with about a 6-inch wing span) flying around the house one day next spring:)

Camp Critters II

Children should be encouraged to watch patiently and quietly, until they learn something of the habits and history of bee, ant, wasp, spider, hairy caterpillar, dragon-fly, and whatever of larger growth comes in their way.

~Charlotte Mason

Summer camp at work has been over for a week now. The decks of our building are quiet, the classroom cleaned up, the debris in my office waiting for me to find it a home. My role was largely to assist with the field outings, helping to share the excitement of whatever cool stuff we encountered. I suppose it’s a good role given that I get almost as excited as they do over any living thing, large or small. I took my camera on all the outings, and it soon became a frequently heard shout, “Mr. Mike, look what I found, take a picture”. So, every day, I  would take a few photos on our hikes, and print some of the best out to share with them after lunch. These “run-n-gun” photos aren’t meant to be works of art, but rather a glimpse into the incredible diversity that we can all find on a short walk in nature, especially if we have the curiosity (and energy) of a child. Here are a few of the highlights from our nature walks (I think we covered most of those mentioned in the quote above)…

Baby anole eating  a lep

One young camper had a talent for catching almost anything from lizards to skippers. He ran towards me one day with this juvenile Carolina Anole, saying, “Mr. Mike, it’s eating a moth”. Just as I snapped a photo, it gulped down its meal, oblivious to all the commotion (click photos to enlarge)

bumblebee mimic robber fly with prey

We witnessed a lot of the “cycle of life” these past two weeks. Here a Bumblebee Mimic Robberfly has captured a bumblebee.

Bumblebee mimic robber fly with prey head view

Another view of robberfly and bee – you can see some differences in the mimic and the model here – the robberfly has short antennae and very different eye structure

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Green Lynx spiders are now large enough to easily see in the wildflowers, where they prey heavily on pollinators, including wasps and bees

green lynx spider with fly prey

Another Green Lynx with a fly. These active hunters do not build webs for capturing their prey, but instead pounce on them like a large cat

Spiny assassin bug nymph

Perhaps a nymph of one of the Spiny Assassin Bugs?

Jumping spider

We had a lot of critters land on us during camp. This jumping spider (Hentzia sp.?) picked one of our more squeamish instructors to hitch a ride on.

ant carrying dead wasp

An ant dragging a dead wasp. One camper told me “ants are the strongest animals in the world and they can carry over 10 times their own weight”. I googled it and found that ants are, indeed, incredibly strong and are believed to be able to carry 10-50 times their own weight (equivalent to a human lifting ~9000 pounds). Their body structure and movement are being studied by engineers in the hopes of designing powerful microbots to perform all sorts of tasks. Who is teaching who in this camp?

Hackberry emperor

Hackberry Emperor butterflies frequently perch on humans to imbibe our salts (sweat)

Eastern Narrow-mouthed toad juvenile side view

Our visit to the vernal pool in the woods yielded a variety of newly transformed amphibians. Eastern Narrow-mouthed toads, actually tiny toad-like frogs, were everywhere along the edge of the pool.

Fowler's toadlet?

Fowler’s Toad toadlets were also common

Cope's gray treefrog juvenile

A very tiny Cope’s Gray Treefrog (note the diagnostic white patch under they eye)

American Dagger Moth larva

This American Dagger Moth caterpillar provided a lesson in being a naturalist and observing the world around you. I found some frass (insect poop) on the trail. After helping them figure out what it was, I asked the campers where to look for the caterpillar that made it. After a couple of guesses in all directions, one camper figured it out and pointed up. We brought it into the classroom to observe for a few days before releasing it back into the wild. The campers named this hairy caterpillar, “prickly pear”.

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We all witnessed an amazing act – a female Dobsonfly laying her egg case on the wall outside the classroom (it took over an hour). Unfortunately, the hatchlings will not fall into a suitable aquatic habitat when they emerge.

short-horned grasshopper sp.

A short-horned grasshopper nymph

damselfly just after emerging

A newly emerged damselfly with exuvia on an emergent stem of Pickerelweed

Surrounded by Swallowtails

Tremendous beauty can be found in the tiniest of things… for who has ever thought to rival that of a butterfly’s wing.

~Kristen D’Angelo

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Close up of hind wings of an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (click on photos to enlarge)

Every few years, we have a population high of swallowtails here in our woods. This year has been exceptional with the greatest numbers of these large butterflies that I have witnessed. This is especially true of our largest (and one of the most recognizable butterfly species) the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus). One reason they are so common for us is that our woods are dominated by one of their primary host plants, Tulip Poplar.

We have a relatively small area that receives enough sunlight to grow wildflowers, and this time of year the primary nectar sources are Joe-Pye-Weed, Ironweed, and Garden Phlox. When I walked up to the house one afternoon a week ago, it reminded me of being inside a butterfly house, with large butterflies drifting all around me and seemingly covering every available flower head. I decided to estimate their abundance, so I went inside and started counting swallowtails visible from the front window and the kitchen window. I was stunned when I finished with a total of 90 swallowtail butterflies! Most were Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, but there were about 6 Spicebush Swallowtails as well.

Swallowtails on joe pye weed

Joe-Pye-Weed has been the favorite nectar source in our yard – this one flower stem has 6 swallowtails on it (one is hidden on the back side)

I did a quick Google search looking for explanations of these population highs and lows in tiger swallowtails. I discovered that what I am witnessing both here and at work is also being seen this summer up and down the East Coast – an explosive population year for Eastern Tiger Swallowtails. But, my searching yielded no real clues as to why. It seems there are just too many variables to explain these population swings, although most scientists agree that it probably relates to weather conditions that negatively influence populations of the abundant predators, parasitoids, and fungi that prey upon the pre-adult life stages of these butterflies.

phox with butterflies

The Garden Phlox has been the big draw for butterflies at work (NC Botanical Garden), especially this one patch (there are 7 swallowtails scattered in this photo, but I have seen many more at times)

Whatever the reason, it has been an incredible summer for swallowtails. They are believed to live an average of 3 to 4 weeks as adults, so they are starting to decline a little after a peak a couple of weeks ago.

Below is an introduction to the swallowtails (and one look-alike) that frequent our woodland garden. The next time you venture out, look closely at your butterflies and see which ones are most common in your landscape.

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Female Eastern Tiger Swallowtails have more blue on their hind wings than males.

Eastern tiger swallowtail male

Males may have a little blue in the hind wings, but not nearly as much as females.

dark morph female eastern tiger swallowtail on joe pye weed

And, just to make it more confusing, female eastern Tiger Swallowtails can also be blackish in their wing background coloration. You can often see faint traces of yellow in the wings, especially from the underside. Like our other black-colored swallowtails, this is believed to mimic the unpalatable Pipevine Swallowtails. The black color morphs are generally more abundant in the mountains, where Pipevine Swallowtails are also more common.

Spicebush swallowtail adult

Spicebush Swallowtails (Papilio troilus) are recognized by the wash of color on the hind wings. Females have bluish color and male a bluish-green color. Their host plants are Sassafras and Spicebush. They are generally more active as feeders, flapping their wings much more than Eastern Tiger Swallowtails.

Black swallowtail on joe pye weed

I don’t see many Black Swallowtails in our yard as they are more of an edge species. There are plenty at work, especially late in the summer, due to the abundance of one of the host plants, Golden Alexander. They are smaller than Eastern Tiger Swallowtails and tend to have a bold yellow stripe (males). Females look similar to black morph Eastern Tiger females, but they are smaller and the orange spot at the base of the hind wings has a dark spot in the center.

Giant swallowtail on Joe-Pye-Weed wings flapping

One day I looked out and saw a very active swallowtail with yellow under its wings feeding on the Joe-Pye-Weed. I recognized it as a Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes).

Giant swallowtail on Joe-Pye-Weed wings spread 2

Ironically, it was almost exactly a year ago that I saw my first Giant Swallowtail in Chatham County. They are large (North America’s largest butterfly) and very active butterflies, making a spread wing shot somewhat difficult.

Pipevine Swallowtail

Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor). Males (photo above) have a brilliant iridescent blue-green color on the hind wings. Females are duller. This species is an irregular visitor to our yard but is easily recognized by its fluttering feeding styles compared to most other swallowtails. Spicebush swallowtails are also active feeders, but appear much larger than Pipevines. As caterpillars, this species sequesters toxins from their host plants (pipevine and Virginia Snakeroot) which are transferred to the adult, giving them some protection from hungry birds and other predators.

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My favorite butterfly, the Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus). These beauties are found in areas near their host plant, pawpaw. Freshly emerged specimens often have hints of blue on their wings.

Red-spotted purple adult

Often mistaken for one of our four dark-colored swallowtails, the beautiful Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis astyanax) is believed to be another mimic of the unpalatable Pipevine Swallowtail. It has iridescent blue hind wings, lacks the wing tails, and has blue dashes or spots along the wing margins. This species is very common in our woods where its host plant, Black Cherry, is abundant.

Wing torn on female Eastern Tiger swallowtail

Many butterflies are now showing signs of aging and the hazards of life in the wild. This male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is missing part of one hind wing, perhaps a victim of a missed attack by a bird or mantis.

great crested flycatcher

Birds are major predators of the larval stages of butterflies, but I have not seen much depredation on adult butterflies, especially of our larger swallowtail species. On two occasions, we have seen flycatchers like Eastern Wood-peewees and this Great Crested Flycatcher snag a butterfly in flight.

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Large Robberflies are reaching their peak population about now and I have seen them hit some of the swallowtails that were nectaring at flowers, but have only seen one actually carry a large butterfly off to feed on it. This one has a large Carpenter Bee as its meal.

spider with swallowtail

Large spiders (large orb weavers) are major predators of swallowtails in our yard. I do see the butterflies occasionally escape once they hit a web, but we also see many wrapped in silk in the many webs that dot or yard.

Praying mantis nymph eating butterfly

Another important predator of large butterflies are the praying mantids, especially the introduced Chinese Mantis. They wait near flower heads and lunge and grab the butterflies. They must be difficult to see as I have watched butterflies forage on the same flower that has a mantis feeding on one of their cousins.

 

Moth Week Plus

I’ve always preferred moths to butterflies. They aren’t flashy or cocky; they mind their own business and just try to blend in with their surroundings and live their lives.

~Kayla Krantz

National Moth Week ended yesterday and I managed to miss most of it for a variety of lame reasons. But, even though I failed to put out my moth light (which is at work for summer camp use), I did manage to find some cool moths hanging  out at lights or ones I flushed from their hiding place as I went about my work. With your permission, I’m going to cheat a little and present a few that I photographed outside the official moth week window. The group includes several that are new to me and several that meant more because I have photographed their larval forms in the past. So, get outside and look around, the beauty and variety of moths is astounding!

I found several large sphinx moths (most sphinx larvae are known as hornworms due to a prominent tail spike). They are the fighter jets in the moth world, typically with a sleek shape and rapid flight.

Plebian sphinx

Plebian sphinx, Paratrea plebeja (also known as the trumpet vine sphinx) (click photos to enlarge)

Pawpaw sphinx

Pawpaw sphinx, Dolba hyloeus

Rustic sphinx with finger for scale

Rustic sphinx, Manduca rustica

It was also a good week for the underwings, so named because they tend to have bright colors on their hind wings that are only revealed when they open their forewings (this may serve as a predator avoidance aid when flashed).

Clouded underwing

Clouded underwing, Catocala nebulosa

Ilia underwing on tree trunk

Ilia underwing, Catocala ilia (also known as Beloved underwing or Wife underwing – photographed on tree trunk to show their wonderful camouflage)

Penitent underwing, Catocala platrix

Penitent underwing, Catocala piatrix

Saddled prominent moth, Heterocampa guttivitta

Saddled prominent moth, Heterocampa guttivitta

It was a good week for little green moths…

Red-fringed emerald,

Red-fringed emerald, Nemoria bistriaria

Red-bordered emerald, Nemoria lixaria

Red-bordered emerald, Nemoria lixaria

Bad-wing moth, Dyspteris abortivaria

Bad-wing moth, Dyspteris abortivaria (love this name)

Spun glass slug moth, Isochaetes beutenmuelleri

Spun glass slug moth, Isochaetes beutenmuelleri (I really want to find this one’s caterpillar – look it up and you’ll see why)

Ailanthus webworm moth

Ailanthus webworm moth, Atteva aurea, a colorful day-flying moth, often seen pollinating various wildflowers

Rosy maple moth

Rosy maple moth, Dryocampa rubicunda, one of our most beautiful, and common, moths

Zale? gray-banded or obliqua?

Gray-banded OR Oblique zale, Zale sp.

Brown-shaded gray?

Brown-shaded gray, Iridopsis defectaria

Maple zale moth, Zale galbanata

Maple zale moth, Zale galbanata

Plain Plume Moth, Hellinsia homodactylus

Plain Plume Moth, Hellinsia homodactylus (the plume moths are among the strangest looking moths!)

The biggest surprise was a rather innocuous-looking little moth found outside one of the entryways to the office. As is often the case, a close-up image showed some beautiful patterns and subtle colors that I might have otherwise missed. But the shocker came when I identified it and saw its name – Wasp Parasitizer. That’s right, this little moth lays its eggs on paper wasp nests and its larvae consume the larvae and pupae of the wasps! The natural world, literally just outside our doors, is truly amazing.

Wasp parasitizer, Chalcoela pegasalis

Wasp parasitizer, Chalcoela pegasalis

 

Feeling Antsy

Ants are everywhere, but only occasionally noticed. They run much of the terrestrial world as the premier soil turners, channelers of energy, dominatrices of the insect fauna…

~Bert Holldobler

The more I learn about them, the more I appreciate plants. Working at the NC Botanical Garden allows me to see the passage of time through the eyes of a variety of native plant species. I have witnessed slow, long-term seasonal changes, as well as brief glimpses of wonder. And so it was that last Friday when a coworker came in right before closing and showed me her phone video of ants dispersing the seeds of a trillium in the Herb Garden. It was amazing to see them carrying such a huge load across the rocks. I grabbed my camera and headed over, hoping I wasn’t too late.

side view of ant carry trillium seed

An ant carrying a Trillium seed back to its nest (click photos to enlarge)

I have seen this phenomenon, called myrmecochory (seed dispersal by ants), a few times before and reported on it in an earlier post. Estimates are that 30%-40% of our spring-blooming woodland flowers rely on ants for seed dispersal. Another source stated that elaiosomes occur in over 11,000 plant species! There are various theories as to why ants do this and how it benefits the seeds:

  • the lipid-rich appendage is a food reward that is fed to the ant larvae when it is taken back to the nest
  • the seed is dispersed away from the parent plant, which may provide a better growth environment by reducing parent-offspring or sibling competition
  • by quickly transporting the seed to its nest, the ants’ behavior reduces the time the seed may be exposed to various seed predators (the seed might get eaten by a bird or mouse, for example)
  • when the seed is discarded into the ant “trash pile”, it is in a nutrient-rich environment ideal for germination

In addition, one author speculates there may be some benefit from the anti-microbial properties within ant nests that will reduce the susceptibility of the seed to various pathogens.

Studies where a researcher has removed some of the elaiosomes and compared removal rates have shown that ants remove seeds with elaiosomes more quickly, often using the appendage as a handle.

But the most intriguing research I have seen focuses on the reason the ants pick up the seed in the first place. It seems that elaiosomes rich in oleic acid trigger a stereotyped carrying  behavior in a variety of ants. E.O. Wilson, the dean of ant researchers, showed that a dead ant starts emitting oleic acid about 48 hours after its death. This is a signal to other ants to pick it up and carry it back to the nest and discard it. He even added a drop of the “dead ant” acid to a live ant, which was quickly picked up and carried to the trash pile, in spite of its thrashing and obviously living qualities. To quote an NPR story on this experiment, Dead is what you smell — not what you see — if you are an ant. So, do plants mimic an insect chemical in order to get ants to carry out their seed dispersal tasks? It appears there may also be some benefit to the ants in this relationship, but the origins of this behavior are fascinating to ponder.

Below is a series of images depicting about 45 minutes in the long life story of one wildflower – a plant that may take 2 years for its seed to germinate, and then another 5 or 6 years to flower and produce its first seed. And, it seems to have figured out a way to con a bunch of insects (yellow jackets are also known to disperse seed with elaiosomes) to carry its seeds back to their trash pile. There appears to be a lot going on out there in the woods that we are just beginning to understand. All the more reason to plant some native plants and get outside and observe your wild neighbors.

Trillium cuneatum

The source of the seeds – Little Sweet Betsy, Trillium cuneatum (this photo was taken in another location in the garden back on March)

trillium

This is how the Trillium that provided the seeds looks now (this photo was taken a couple of days after the ant dispersal images and the seed pod has now disappeared)

trillium seed pod

The seed pod was lying on a leaf and was laden with ants

Trillium seed pod with ants inside

A peek inside at the seeds with elaiosomes and ants

ant carrying seed out of seed pod

An ant lugs a seed up and out of the pod

ant carrying seed down the plant

Then it is easy-going downhill on a leaf

ant carrying trilliun seed by the elaiosome

Then on to a lichen- and moss-covered rock

ant about to drop off steep edge of rock with seed

The first hazard on the journey – the steep drop-off of the front edge of the rock (as I watched, a fewants fell off this ledge with their heavy loads)

Ants on trillium seeds in Herb Garden

A feast when a few seeds fell out onto the rock

ant carrying trilliun seed by the elaiosome 1

The elaiosome provides a good grip for an ant’s jaws

IMG_7207

The path taken by the ants – about 6 feet across an open walkway to the rock in the background

ant nearing nest entrance under leaves

An ant with its prize just before disappearing into the nest beneath the leaf litter

Camp Critters

If a child is to keep his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.

~Rachel Carson

It is summer camp time at work and it has been busy these past few weeks. We have a tremendous crew of staff and volunteers, so I have mainly been around to help out with the nature hikes each day.  Though I have worked mainly with adults for most of my career, there is something very satisfying about helping a child discover more about the world around them. The theme these past two weeks has been Things with Wings – the world of flying things from seeds to birds to insects. I always take my camera and macro lens on our walks, taking pictures of things that I, or the campers, find, and then print a few off during lunch for them to enjoy. The diversity of native plants and habitats at the Garden leads to an amazing diversity of critters. Here are a few from the past two weeks…

Assasin bug nymphs?

Newly hatched leaf-footed bug nymphs and eggs (click photos to enlarge)

Wheel bug

Wheel bug (aka Assassin bug)

Silver-spotted skipper

Silver-spotted skipper – these are incredibly abundant at the Garden right now

Praying mantis nymph eating butterfly

Chinese mantid nymph eating a butterfly

Fishing spider with dragonfly nymph prey

A really large Six-spotted fishing spider that has pulled its prey up onto a lily pad to dine

Fishing spider with dragonfly nymph prey close up

A closer look shows it captured a dragonfly nymph. Also note what appears to be a freeloader fly dining on the spillage (look just above the spiders eyes for the fly)

Great blue skimmer

Great blue skimmer at the Turtle Pond

hellgrammite

Our hike to Morgan Creek is always a highlight. We caught several dobsonfly larvae (hellgrammites) in the swifter water

Snake eating catfish close up

The campers spotted this water snake dining on a catfish. We watched it for about 15 minutes as it slowly worked the fish into its mouth

Jumping spider (Phidippus clarus?)

A jumping spider (Phidippus sp.) was one of many things caught while sweep netting

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One of my favorite critters to catch while sweep netting is this tiny plant hopper, Rhynchomitra microrhina. It really needs a common name, so we usually call it the pointy nose thingie

Lacewing larva with prey carcasses on back

Lacewing larva – the huge jaws are used to capture prey such as aphids. The larvae have bristles on the dorsal surface to which they attach debris and the bodies of their victims. Secretions from the corpses may help the larvae move through a group of prey without being detected

American lady

One of the campers described a butterfly he saw as looking like a buckeye underneath and a monarch when it opened its wings. We finally saw this American lady and solved the riddle

Fiery searcher caterpillar hunter elytra

A child’s eyes can often find the most beautiful object lying on the trail. This is one half of the elytra (hardened forewings) of a beetle, probably a Fiery Searcher Caterpillar Hunter (now that’s a name!)

 

 

Bearly Awake

Each day holds a surprise.

~Henry Nouwen

Melissa and I have been with Mom this week helping take care of the many things that require attention when a family member passes. It has been a busy few days, though I managed to take Mom to Damascus last night for a little relaxation at their annual fireworks display (Melissa left last night to join a friend in the mountains of NC for some much-deserved down time). But, I’m sorry she missed this morning’s surprise.

A little before 6 a.m., I heard a loud thud. I was lying there, listening, worried that Mom had gotten out of bed and had dropped something, or worse. I soon heard another, louder noise, but it reassuringly sounded like it was coming from the deck. I assumed it was the raccoon that occasionally raids the bird feeders, so I got up and looked out the window…it was not a raccoon! There was about a 200-pound black bear walking around on the deck. I grabbed my phone and went into the living room, hoping to document this event, when he decided to stroll down the steps. I ran back into where we sleep and took this fuzzy, out of focus iPhone picture out the window.

bear in yard

Bear strolling away from the deck steps into the back yard (click photos to enlarge)

What impressed me was how natural the bear looked going down the steps and eventually crawling over the fence. He has certainly done this sort of thing before. It seemed to disappear down toward the river, a nice travel corridor if you are trying to avoid humans this time of day.

bird feeder

A “gentle” touch left only minor damage to the feeders

We have been filling feeders only in the morning, which means they are always empty by the time evening rolls around, figuring that is less enticement for the roving raccoons. But, the bear had not gotten the memo. Still, he checked out all the possibilities, but leaving relatively minor carnage at the feeding stations. A suet feeder had been ripped off one side, but the hot pepper suet remained untouched. After lifting the hinged lid to one feeder, the bear snapped out the plex panel. I think I got to the living room window about the time he realized this restaurant must be closed, and so he wandered off the deck, climbed the fence, and headed down to the river.

suet feeder

Hot suet, not to the bear’s liking

Had he only wandered around front, he might have been able to join the other critters feasting on the spoils of several fruit trees that line the driveway.

critters

Meanwhile, out front…the usual 4-point buck and a bunny

fruit tree

A future meal perhaps?

Every morning, while sipping my coffee, I see several deer, rabbits, birds, the occasional fox squirrel, and some ground hogs out along the field edges, especially under the many fruit trees that are starting to drop some of their heavy load of apples, pears, or peaches…a bear banquet in the making.

logo

I think I chose the right logo

When I went back inside, I noticed I had thrown on an appropriate t-shirt for the occasion. Happy Fourth of July everyone!

 

 

 

Seek, and Ye Shall Find

The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.

~Confuscius

This past month, I have tried to find 5 or 10 minutes each day at work to walk around the building breezeways to photograph any moths that were attracted to the lights the previous night. I hope to create a library of images of some of the common species. As I have reported before, I am relatively new to “mothing” and am still struggling to learn some of the more than 2600 reported species in NC. The release of the Peterson Field Guide to the Moths of Southeastern North America last year has made a huge difference in my ability to identify what I find. My copy is already showing signs of wear from the frequent page-flipping. I also refer to the Moths of North Carolina or Bug Guide web sites to confirm an identification.

Now I have another ally in my quest to learn more. It may be a game-changer, in fact. It is the Seek app by iNaturalist. Using the millions of observations on iNaturalist, Seek shows you lists of commonly recorded insects, birds, plants, amphibians, and more in your area. You don’t even need to take a photo, just open the camera and scan whatever you want to know more about. It instantly gives you information, and if it can’t ID it, it may suggest looking at the subject from a different angle. It is usually at least gets you to the family level or beyond even if it doesn’t ID to species. This free app is available for both iOS and Android. I have found it to be particularly useful for moth identification, most likely due to the countless recorded observations of several local moth enthusiasts. In order to get the best possible image, I usually take the photo with my normal camera set-up (100mm macro and twin flash), download the image onto my laptop, and then scan it with my phone and the Seek app for ID help.

I have double-checked many of the early identifications using the other references mentioned and found them to be accurate. A few times, Seek has not been able to provide anything but a family recommendation. But, overall, I have been very impressed with the results thus far.

Here are a few of the highlights from this past month. Note the variety of shapes, colors, and patterns. One thing you can’t tell from these images is the huge range in size – the Common Tan Wave has a wing span of about 20mm while that of the Io moth is about 80mm.

Canadian Melanolophia moth, Melanolophia canadaria 1

Canadian Melanolophia moth, Melanolophia canadaria (click photos to enlarge)

Confused Eusarca, Eusarca confusaria

Confused Eusarca, Eusarca confusaria

Black-dotted ruddy moth, Ilexia intractata

Black-dotted ruddy moth, Ilexia intractata

Common tan wave, Pleuropucha insulsaria

Common tan wave, Pleuropucha insulsaria

Baltimore snout, Hypena baltimoralis 1

Baltimore snout, Hypena baltimoralis – one of the more striking species this month

Delicate Cycnia moth, Cycnia tenera

Delicate Cycnia moth, Cycnia tenera

Dark-spotted Palthis moth, Palthis angulalis

Dark-spotted Palthis moth, Palthis angulalis

Ambiguous moth, Lascoria ambigualis

Ambiguous moth, Lascoria ambigualis

Curved-line angle, Digrammia continuata

Curved-line angle, Digrammia continuata

Ironweed root moth, Polygammodes flavidalis

Ironweed root moth, Polygammodes flavidalis – a delicate beauty with hints of iridescence

One-spotted variant, Hypagyrtis unipunctata

One-spotted variant moth, Hypagyrtis unipunctata  – quite variable indeed

Tulip-tree beauty 1

Tulip-tree beauty, Epimecis hortaria – a common bark mimic

White-marked tussock moth, Orgyia leucostigma

White-marked tussock moth, Orgyia leucostigma

Eastern grass tubeworm moth, Acrolophus plumifrontella 3

Eastern grass tubeworm moth, Acrolophus plumifrontella – a very common species right now

Variable oakleaf caterpillar moth, Lochmaeus manteo

Variable oakleaf caterpillar moth, Lochmaeus manteo

Oblique-banded leafroller moth, Choristoneura rosaceana

Oblique-banded leafroller moth, Choristoneura rosaceana

Southern flannel moth, Megalopyge opercularis

Southern flannel moth, Megalopyge opercularis – this is the adult form of the puss moth caterpillar

Juniper twig geometer, Patalene olyzonaria

Juniper geometer moth, Patalene olyzonaria

Large maple spanworm moth, Prochoerodes lineola

Large maple spanworm moth, Prochoroedes lineata

Io moth, Automeris io

Io moth, Automeris io – a large female

Io moth, Automeris io with wings spread

Io moth, Automeris io, with wings spread to reveal the false eye spots

Savanna Sights

To think that plants ate insects would go against the order of nature…

~Carl Linnaeus

After a crazy busy spring field trip season at work, I am finally getting around to catching up on a couple of posts. Like last year, toward the end of April I collaborated with Melissa and the NC Museum of Natural Sciences to offer an educator workshop on carnivorous plants. We traveled to the Green Swamp and Holly Shelter, two of the hot spots for insect-eating plants in our state. Check out these earlier posts on these habitats, the variety of carnivorous plants they contain, and the marvelous Venus Flytrap. Since I covered a lot of information in those earlier posts, I’ll just share a few of the highlights from this year’s workshop.

carnivorous lants in green swamp

A trio of carnivores in the Green Swamp (click photos to enlarge)

Our first stop was one of the savannas in the Green Swamp. As we took off on the trail, someone found a snake shed and we stopped to admire the beauty of its patterns.

snake shed 1

Snake shed

snake shed

The beautiful patterns of a snake shed

We spent the afternoon in a longleaf pine savanna, enjoying the distinctive sound of wind through the pines and the filtered sunlight on the grasses and other beautiful plants found beneath our feet.

sundew

Pink sundew, Drosera capillaris

We stayed overnight in Wilmington, and, as we usually do on these workshops, offered an optional trip to the beach for sunrise before eating breakfast and heading over to Holly Shelter.

sunrise at beach

Sunrise did not disappoint

Willet feeding at sunrise

A willet feeding along the surf line at sunrise

Sanderling at sunrise 1

A sanderling rushing on the beach between waves at sunrise

Driving into the game lands, we stopped on a dry sand ridge to photograph a lupine alongside the road. But a bright green larva caught the eye of one participant and we were all distracted for a few moments, admiring this stout beauty.

Dark marathyssa or Roland's sallow?

My best guess is a Roalnd’s sallow caterpillar

Sandhills lupine whole plant view

Blue sandhill lupine, Lupinus diffusus

bullfrog

Bullfrog

The canals alongside the road proved to be a distraction as well with lots of turtles, frogs, and an American alligator.

Southern cricket frog

Southern cricket frog

alligator head

American alligator

Finally, we piled out of the vans and found a treasure trove of insect-eating plants, orchids, and other savanna species that have responded spectacularly to the regular prescribed burns.

studying flytraps

Workshop participants observing Venus flytraps

Flytraps and sundews

Venus flytraps and sundews covered the ground in places

Butterwort flowers

Flowers of blue butterwort, Pinguicula caerulea

Grass pink orchid

Bearded grass-pink orchid, Calopogon barbatus

rose pogonia orchid open flower 1

Rose pogonia orchid, Pogonia ophioglossoides

Orange milkwort

Orange milkwort, Polygala lutea

caterpillar in pitcher plant

Caterpillar living inside yellow pitcher plant

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Distinctive bulls-eye in the web of a lined orbweaver

As we left the game lands, we stopped occasionally to look for red-cockaded woodpeckers (we saw plenty of nest cavities, but no birds on this day). One nice discovery was a ditch with another species of carnivorous plant – the bizarre little floating bladderwort.

Utricularia radiata?

Little floating bladderwort, Utricularia radiata

Utricularia radiata

Close up of inflated flotation structures

Our workshop concluded with a group of educators excited about the strange world of our state’s carnivorous plants and the incredibly diverse longleaf pine and pocosin habitats where they are found. Hopefully, their enthusiasm and new knowledge will help their students and colleagues better appreciate these unique features of our coastal plain.

Longleaf pine savanna

Longleaf pine savanna in Holly Shelter Game Lands

Getting Back To It

It’s always good to get back to the places you love…

Life has been way too busy these past many weeks and my blog entries have suffered, but I finally have a break this morning while I wait on some overdue car maintenance. With the busyness has been less time exploring outside, but this weekend saw a return to one of my favorite places, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. The occasion was the 5th annual Black Bear Festival in Plymouth, NC.

Black Bear Festival

The entryway to the Black Bear Festival in Plymouth (click photos to enlarge)

The NC Museum of Natural Sciences was again assisting with the popular “bear tours” on the Pungo Unit of the refuge and I volunteered to help out. We did six 3-hour tours from Friday evening through Sunday afternoon, so it was busy schedule, but a good time nonetheless. It included severe weather before and during Friday’s tour that saw hail, lightning, strong winds, and heavy rains. In spite of all that, we managed two bears on that first tour.

Black Bear tracks

Fresh bear  and deer tracks

The next morning, we headed out at 6 a.m. with a dense layer of fog limiting our viewing across the fields, but we managed a few bears once the fog started to lift. The plus side of the heavy rain was that we knew any tracks we saw were fresh!

Black-bellied whistling duck

Black-bellied whistling duck

A rare find was a black-bellied whistling duck perched along one of the canals in the refuge. I have seen this species a few times in NC and FL, but never on the Pungo Unit. I was told by a friend that this one has been hanging around this area for a couple of weeks. They are a beautiful duck, more typically found in marshes from Texas to Florida, but seem to be slowly expanding their range northward.

Dugoutr canoe in museum

Dugout canoe in the Roanoke River Maritime Museum in Plymouth

Between tours on Saturday, we visited the festival in downtown Plymouth. Lots of local food vendors, exhibits and talks about bears, and the usual crowd of knick-knack vendors and local organization booths that show up at such events. We visited the Roanoke River Maritime Museum to see some displays of wildlife photography and local boating history. Imagine my surprise when I came across something from my past – the section of dugout canoe I found years ago in Lake Phelps when I was working as the East District Naturalist for NC State Parks. I had no idea it was on display and was even more surprised to see what is probably the original exhibit text label made when this section of canoe sat on display in a make-shift exhibit shed at Pettigrew State Park.  When I started working at the NC Botanical Garden and was designing a program on uses of native pants (for example, bald cypress for dugout canoes), I tracked down the NY Times article from my 15 minutes of fame for being the guy that first stumbled upon this treasure trove of ancient canoes. The large canoe mentioned in the text is now on display at the NC Museum of History in Raleigh.

Exhibit sign about dugout canoes

A blast from the past

Each tour yielded some wildlife surprises (king rails running down the road ahead of the bus, turtles being helped across the road, nutria in the canals, etc.), improving muddy roads, and visitors delighted to see their first bears in the wild. In between tours, we had a few moments to take in the sights and sounds of the town –  grab a bite to eat, check out the noisy southern toads and squirrel treefrogs in the retention pond at the hotel, and get ready for the next busload of people. With two buses running each tour, we shared the wonders of Pungo with over 180 visitors from all around NC (and a few other states).

Southern toad calling

Southern toad calling

While every tour had its moments of adventure, one tour stood out for all of us, the Sunday morning 6 a.m. trip. We had just turned onto the refuge road when a bear went across the road, immediately starting us off with a bear encounter. Just down the road was standing bear…a medium-sized back bear with a propensity for standing up in the corn field to check us out.

Black bear standing in field

Black bear – “outstanding” in his field

Once we hit the dirt of D-Canal Road, we spotted another bear feeding in a wheat field on private lands adjacent to the refuge. Bears love wheat and we saw them in this field on several of the tours. The golden color of the wheat provided a beautiful backdrop for the jet black fur of the bears.

Black bear in wheat field

Bear surrounded by delicious wheat, the breakfast of champions

While we were all watching that bear, a young bear came out into another field on the refuge next to us and walked right in front of the bus and group of excited onlookers.

Young black bear crossing road

Young bear walking near our group

Then, another young bear (these are probably last year’s cubs) strolled out behind the buses and disappeared into the woods.

Young black bear crossing road 2

Another young bear on the other side of our group

Most of the people continued to watch the first young bear that was still wandering around in front of the buses, while a few of us were standing at the edge of the canal watching the bear in the wheat. Suddenly, I see a bear head pop up from the bank of the canal just a few feet from us. I whispered to the few people between me and the bear to move back and give it some room. It looked like the young bear that had crossed behind us and gone into the woods just a few minutes before. Apparently, it had gone to the canal and walked down the bank, climbing up in front of us.

Black bear comes up next to group

This one popped up right next to us

The confused bear walked up, moved across in front of us, and passed in front of the buses and the rest of the group. Minutes later, another head popped up and followed the same path. It seemed like bears were everywhere around us. These young bears probably aren’t sure what they should do in these situations so you need to give them space to move freely. The second one started to climb a tree when it saw the large group gathered in front of the bus, but when they stepped back and remained quiet, it came down and hustled across the road.

Black bear entering canal

The wheat field bear entering the canal

Meanwhile, the wheat field bear finished breakfast and angled toward us to cross the steep-banked canal. I positioned myself to get a good view, and as she slowly entered the water, I expected to get a nice shot of her swimming across.

Black bear starts across canal 1

Why swim when you can walk across?

Instead, she surprised me and slowly stood up, holding her front paws above the water, In all my years of watching bears, I have never seen one cross a canal like this.

Black bear walking across canal

Keeping those front paws dry

Just one more reason I love the Pungo Unit and love observing bears. They are a constant source of amazement, curiosity, and wonder.