Night Flashes

Life begins at night.

~ Charlaine Harris

It’s not just moths that I have been seeing out in the yard after dark. The new flash system has been out on a few nights with me as I wander the premises (carefully in case there are any Copperheads out and about) looking for what’s happening on the night shift. Here are some of the highlights of the late night crowd.

The sculptor of leaves, a May Beetle chewing its way through the foliage of trees and shrubs after dark (click photos to enlarge)
An Oblong-winged Katydid, Amblycorypha oblongifolia. Summer is the time for the katydids to come out and sing their chorus in the darkness. This is one of the katydid species that can occur in different colors other than the dominant green – orange, tan, yellow, or even pink.
A nymph of the Common Tree Cricket, Oecanthus sp., hiding on the underside of a leaf. An adult male tree cricket calls by rubbing the ridges of their wings together.
A common spider in our woods, this Spined Micrathena, Micrathena gracilis, is armored with stiff spines to deter predation. This is a female as they are much larger than males and are the ones that build the webs. Males probably use silk only during the mating ritual.
Annual or Dogday Cicada, Neotibicen sp. Although called “annual” cicadas, they actually have two to five year life cycles with some adults emerging every summer. Males produce loud high-pitched sounds by vibrating specialized round abdominal membranes called tympanums. Sounds can be as high as 100dB
The stars of my night-time strolls are the Cope’s Gray Treefrogs, Hyla chrysoscelis. This is prime mating season for these beautiful amphibians and we can hear their harsh trills from inside the house almost every night now. This one was shy when I approached and quit calling (his vocal sac is enlarged, but he is not inflating it for calling)
This one was not shy. Perched on a plant a few feet from one of our amphibian ponds, he was cranking out his calls trying to attract a mate. You can see the bright yellow on the inner thighs, usually visible only when the frog is moving.
Note the huge toe pads on this species, allowing them to expertly climb almost any surface.
I believe this is a female (because of the white throat). She was on the edge of one of our ponds, no doubt trying to decide which caller she liked the best. Once she chooses, she will approach the male and often touch him, and he will then grab her and, together, they will move to the water.
A small, loose cluster of eggs is laid at the surface of the water. They will hatch in a few days, with tadpoles developing into froglets in about 45 days.
Another pond dweller is easier to see at night – a Backswimmer, Notonecta sp. Note the long hind legs used like oars for locomotion and the upside down resting position at the water surface. Backswimmers are predators that capture prey with their front legs, and stab them with their strong beak-like mouthpart. They then suck out the hemolymph (insect “blood”) of the victim. They breathe by capturing air in a fine layer of “hairs” that cover their body.
Here is one of many larval Spotted Salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum) still living in our ponds. Eggs were laid in February and early March and the largest larvae now look to be about 2 inches long. They will soon absorb those feathery gils and leave the pond to find a home in the woods nearby.

Moth Night 2022

There are moths outside, ready to die for a light they crave but which is denied to them, … Sometimes, in the midst of all I have been given, I watch the moths in us all. Everybody has a light which they think they cannot live without.

~Alma Alexander

A bit of a deep starting quote perhaps, but, with all that is happening right now in our world, I realize even more now that, for both Melissa and I, nature is the light that we cannot live without. So, we did find the time and energy to have a few friends over this past weekend for our annual moth night. This week is National Moth Week, where thousands of people around the world are out looking at our nocturnal neighbors. It is a simple thing that anyone can do, and it opens up a new world of biodiversity and beauty right in your own backyard.

Moths are insects, related to butterflies, but they differ from their better-known cousins in many respects. Most moths fly at night (we do have some common day-flying moths in our area, like the Hummingbird Clearwing). Moth antennae are either tapered or feathered in shape whereas butterflies have knobs or hooks at the tips of theirs. And many moths have a “hairy” looking body, whereas a butterfly’s body tends to be leaner and smoother.

In North Carolina, 177 species of butterflies have been recorded. Compare that to the 2962 species (and counting) of moths we have. Though they can often be challenging to identify to species, there are now several great resources for moth enthusiasts. Some of my favorites include: Peterson Feld Guide to Moths of Southeastern North America; BugGuide (https://bugguide.net); North Carolina Biodiversity Project (https://nc-biodiversity.com/); and two free apps – Leps by Fieldguide and Seek by iNaturalist. And, don’t forget, you can still enjoy the beauty and wonder of these members of the neighborhood night shift even if you can’t find them in a field guide.

We have a couple of inexpensive black lights that project light in the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum. We set them outside, next to a suspended white sheet, one on the front porch, one on the back deck. then we go out periodically to see what has been attracted to the light. This set-up brings in many species of moths as well as other night-flying insects. Many species tend to come in and just sit on the sheet, making them easy to observe. A few tend to fly in and bounce around, never settling for very long as you desperately try to get a photo for identification.

Here is a sampling of our tally for the night. Most are fairly small (except where noted) and photos are taken with a 100mm macro lens. I have done my best to identify using the two apps I mentioned, plus corroborating with various field guides. As always, if you see an error, please let me know in the comments.

By far, the most abundant creature of the night – a May Beetle, Diplotaxis sp. These are the beetles that keep banging on our windows every night during the summer until we turn off our inside lights. (click photos to enlarge)
The first moth of the evening, this mohawk-adorned species is an Eastern Grass Tubeworm Moth, Acrolophus plumifrontella. I’m guessing this is a male since the description says the mohawk is actually a pair of elongated, recurved labial palps that the male moth holds over its head. Labial palps are paired mouthparts that act as sensory organs.
A Double-banded Grass Veneer, Crambus agitatellus. I love the scale details toward the rear of the wings.
A tiny Dimorphic Tosale Moth, Tosale oviplagalis. The posture (tip of abdomen up, wings down) is distinctive for this species.
Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth, Lithacodes fasciola. Another small moth with a distinctive posture. The larvae of this species have “stinging hairs” though I doubt they are painful as the caterpillars are pretty small.
Another non-moth visitor, this enormous (1.5 inches) Triceratops Beetle, Phileurus truncatus. Males and females have horns on their head. Larvae are believed to feed on decaying wood and the adults may be predatory on other beetle grubs.
White-roped Glaphyria Moth, Glaphyria sesquistrialis. Not many details online about this species other than it has a long flight period from February to November.
Walnut Caterpillar Moth, Datana integerrima. One of five similar-looking species of Datana moths in our state, the caterpillars of this one are gregarious feeders on walnut and various hickories.
Variable Reddish Pyrausta Moth, Pyrausta rubricalis. Named in 1796, but I could not find much at all on this species online.
One of the most common moths in our woods, the Tulip-tree Beauty, Epimecis hortaria. These are fairly large moths that hide in plain sight on tree trunks by day.
Another of the very cryptic moths, a Brown-shaded Gray, Iridopsis defectaria. This is another common species on our property. The larvae feed on a variety of hardwood tree leaves.
It is always a delight to see a beautiful Rosy Maple Moth, Dryocampa rubicunda. This is one of the smaller members of the Giant Silk Moth family, Saturniidae. The larvae feed on maple leaves.
A much larger (about a 4-inch wing span) Saturnid moth, a Tulip-tree Silkmoth, Callosamia angulifera. This guy rarely sits till for a photo, but instead flaps wildly as it bangs around on the sheet or flies into your head (it landed momentarily on one of our friends’ nose).
A showstopper at any moth event, a Luna Moth, Actias luna. Unfortunately, the two Luna Moths arrived after everyone had left for the evening. Larvae feed mainly on Sweetgum in our area.
A much smaller (about 1-inch wingspan) lime green moth, a Red-bordered Emerald, Nemoria lixaria. Larvae feed on oak leaves, one of the most important food plants for the larvae of many moth species.
Mottled Snout, Hypena palparia. Larvae feed on American Hornbeam and American Hop-hornbeam, both of which are found in our woods.
A Hebrew Moth, Polygrammate hebraeicum. The common and species name likely refer to resemblance of the pattern to characters in the Hebrew alphabet.
Decorated Owlet, Pangrapta decoralis. Often seen perched with wings spread. Larvae feed on blueberry plants and Sourwood.
Citrus Flatid Planthopper, Metcalfa pruinosa. The most common of the planthoppers found in our yard during the day, it is also attracted to lights at night.
Green Cone-headed Planthopper, Acanalonia conica. Another common species that feeds on a variety of herbs, shrubs, and trees.
I wasn’t sure what type of insect this was when I first saw it, but enlarging the photo on the computer and using the Seek app, it appears to be one of the Cixiid Planthoppers, Bothriocera sp.

A nice sampling of the nocturnal critters in our back (and front) yard and an enjoyable evening spent oohing and aahing with friends. I highly recommend it.


~

Squeaky Bird

There is an unreasonable joy to be had from the observation of small birds going about their bright, oblivious business.

~Grant Hutchison

I was out pulling some weeds in our yard jungle one day this week when I suddenly realized there was a high-pitched peeping sound coming from the stand of Common Milkweed a few feet away. It didn’t sound like any insect or frog I recognized, so I eased around the milkweed stems and was surprised to see what I assume was a young Ruby-throated Hummingbird perched on a plant support. It was incessantly squeaking (or peeping, not sure which best describes the noise it was making). I stepped a little closer, wondering if the bird was okay, and it just turned its head, looked at me, and continued squeaking. So, I went inside, grabbed my camera and phone, and came back out. Yup, still squeaking.

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird (possibly a young one) sitting on a metal plant support in my yard (click photo to enlarge)

I took a few pictures with my DSLR and a macro lens and then decided to do a quick iPhone video to share.

–I heard the squeaking and walked over to find this hummingbird peeping (iPhone video from about 3 feet away)

A few seconds after I finished the video clip, the bird lifted off and flew to a nearby tree branch, at least confirming that it could fly. I went about my yard work and encountered this little hummingbird a few more times, usually down low near or, on one occasion, sitting on one of the hummingbird feeders. It was perched a bit awkwardly, up on top of the feeding port instead of on the foothold in front of the hole. I watched it feed for a minute or more (a long time for a hummingbird to feed). I was standing only a couple of feet away and I guess I was too close for the other hummingbirds to swoop in and chase the little guy off. I’m not sure if this was a young fledgling bird begging for food or what it was doing sitting there squeaking so much. We have four feeders out and a bunch of summer blooms right now and the yard has at least 6 or 7 hummingbirds that are constantly doing battle for supremacy at the feeders. I wonder if this little guy has just been intimidated to the point that it is difficult for it to feed. If anyone has any experience with this type of behavior in hummingbirds or any other thoughts, please post them in the comments.

Flash Mob, Part 2

I believe alien life is quite common in the universe, although intelligent life is less so. Some say it has yet to appear on planet Earth.

~Stephen Hawking

I returned Friday from a few days helping out my mom in the mountains of Virginia and have been slugging around the house and yard trying to avoid the heat and humidity, It’s tough when you sweat through a tee shirt just walking around the wildflower jungle with a camera. Here are a few more macro subjects with the new flash set-up.

I posted some pics of the Red Aphids last time, a few of which were being eaten by Syrphid Fly larvae. These two have been killed by a tiny wasp parasitoid that devours their insides, pupates inside their empty husk, and then exits through the hole you see on their sides. These empty shells are called Mummy Aphids (click photos to enlarge)
Some hatched insect eggs (maybe Stink Bug eggs) on an iris leaf
An unidentified winged ant. I saw a few others one morning…perhaps a mating flight?
An unidentified sharpshooter (a type of leafhopper), possibly in the genus Draeculacephala, which means Dracula-headed.
An early instar of one of my favorite caterpillars, a Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus). I spotted the tell-tale folded leaf on a Northern Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) out front. I gently opened the fold to reveal this snake mimic larva with incredibly life-like fake eyes. You can see the silk that the caterpillar spun on the leaf to fold it (silk contracts as it dries, pulling the two sides of the leaf together).
A large Rustic Sphinx Moth (Manduca rustica) caterpillar feeding on American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
A new insect (for me anyway) in the yard, a White-fringed Weevil, Naupactus leucoloma – one of the so-called broad-nosed weevils. Originally from South America, this beetle is now considered an agricultural pest throughout the southern United States. Males are unknown for this species. Oddly, I saw several of these one afternoon and when I went out the next day to look again, I couldn’t find any.
Another new species for me was this tiny (less than 1/4 inch) Saddled Leafhopper, Colladonus clitellarius.
Some of the hopper nymphs are just comical looking. I think this is a Coppery Leafhopper, Jikradia olitoria. The upturned abdomen is diagnostic.
Here is an adult Coppery Leafhopper. This species is quite variable in color as an adult. Many leaf- and planthopper species can be difficult to photograph since they tend to move under a leaf when approached with a macro lens. This one obliged me by perching in one spot while I took several photos.
I found several of these tiny predators throughout the yard. This spiky little guy looks like it just woke up from a hard night of partying. This is a Spiny Assassin Bug nymph, Sinea sp.
Unidentified fly. Note the toe pads and the fact that it has only two wings which makes it a member of the fly family, Diptera (translates to two wings).
One of my favorite summer yard critters, a Two-marked Treehopper, Enchenopa binotata. Treehoppers are known for their often bizarre shapes due to enlarged pronotums (the prominent plate-like structure that covers all or part of the thorax of some insects). This species is a thorn mimic.
Here is another type of treehopper in the Buffalo treehopper group. This one may be Hadrophallus bubalus (no common name, although something like triceratops treehopper seems appropriate). This is another new species for the yard. As a by-product of their feeding on copious quantities of plant sap, treehoppers often secrete a sugary substance called honeydew, which can serve as a food source for bees, wasps, and ants. You can see this one was accompanied by an ant. Ants often provide protection from predators in exchange for the honeydew.
A head-on view of the above treehopper. Interestingly, treehoppers communicate with one another by vibrating the stems and leaves of their host plants creating sounds too high-pitched for the human ear.
It seems as though spikiness is a thing in the yard right now. Here is a Spiny-backed Orbweaver, Gasteracantha cancriformis. This one is feeding on a large black ant. The rigid spines are believed to help protect them from predators like birds. This one was about 10mm across and is a female. Like many spider species, the males are smaller than females, in this case much smaller (only 2 – 3mm).
There has been an emergence in the yard of these flying tigers this week. This is a robber fly known as the False Bee-killer, Promaschus bastardii. I’m guessing the scientific name was coined by a bee ecologist. Every year, about this time, I see several of these large (a little over an inch long) robber flies snagging flying insects out of the air. Their loud buzzing is a give-away as they fly off when I am walking through the yard. I saw two this day, each with a species of bee (this one, a Honeybee, the other had a native bee of some sort).

Though the far reaches of the universe have been in the news a lot recently because of the amazing images from the James Webb Space Telescope, I continue to see aliens right outside my front door. Take a look and I think you will be amazed at what you can find as well.

Flash Mob

What makes photography an strange invention is that its primary raw materials are light and time.

~John Berger

My macro light has been giving me trouble for a while now and we finally put in an order for a new one last year. It has been on backorder ever since. I started looking at reviews online and found another option at about a third of the price of the one I was replacing and decided to take the plunge and bought a Godox MF12 twin flash and wireless trigger. It is definitely fancier and seemingly has some advantages, but it is a bit more complicated and I am still learning how to use it after a couple of days. It does great during the daytime, but I am having some trouble with night photography (when you really need a flash) but I am pretty sure it is user error and I hope to conquer that soon. In the meantime, I’m afraid you may be subjected to a slew of pics of bugs here in the yard and the woods for a bit (my apologies to the squeamish amongst you that prefer flower pics….you know who I am talking about). Next step is to create some diffusion to soften the harsh light a bit. Here is a sampler of some macro subjects from the past couple of days.

One of our striking day-time moths, the Ailanthus Webworm Moth, (Atteva aurea) on Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) – click on photos to enlarge
Chestnut Carpenter Ant, Camponotus castaneus. This large (up to 10mm) ant is found throughout our woods nesting in rotting logs or under rocks.
One of my favorite insects, a nymph of the Red-headed Bush Cricket (aka Handsome Trig), Phyllopalpus pulchellus.
This beetle-like cricket has large palps (finger-like mouthparts) that are usually in motion as it explores a leaf surface in search of food.
Two-striped Planthopper nymph, Acanalonia bivittata. Adults are green (occasionally pink) with dark stripes along the top edge of the wings. On the back end of this nymph you can see some of the waxy filaments produced by an abdominal gland to supposedly help protect them from predators. Adults and nymphs pierce plant stems and suck up the sap.
Northern Flatid Planthopper, Flatormenis proxima. I love the venation in the wings of this common species.
One of the most abundant insects in our yard, the beautiful (and tiny) Red-banded Leafhopper, Graphocephala coccinea.
Yellow-striped Leafhopper, Sibovia occatoria, a species I rarely see here in the yard jungle. This little beauty is about the size of a small grain of rice.
Red aphids, Uroleucon sp., on the stem of a Green-headed coneflower, Rudbeckia laciniata. There are aphids predators on the prowl as well. The black-colored aphid has been parasitized (most likely by a tiny wasp parasitoid) and has died with the wasp larva or pupa inside. But what about those other things?
What I believe is a Syrphid fly (Hover Fly) larvae eating a Red Aphid
This morning along our walkway – a Spotted Orbweaver (Neoscona crucifera) with prey (I think it is a type of May Beetle, Phyllophaga sp.)

Flower Fireworks

Against a dark sky, all flowers look like fireworks.

~Gilbert K. Chesterton

It is a strange Fourth of July this year for me. I have mixed emotions about the things I see happening in our country (and our world). And, while I have enjoyed watching the big firework displays offered in many communities, I am not a huge fan of the many noisy backyard fireworks sounds we hear for several nights each year around the holiday. I worry about pets, wildlife, and people with PTSD or other conditions that might suffer when hearing all this noise (and the potential for accidental fires near homes). So, this year, we opted to hang here in the woods (plus, one of us is under the weather). As I walked around the yard this morning, I realized that our flowers offer a hint of a fireworks display of their own in their varied shapes and colors. Here are a few of those blooming in our yard today (along with a couple of critters found lurking in the plants)…perhaps best viewed with the sounds of the 1812 Overture in the background…

Queen Anne’s Lace (click photos to enlarge)
Bottlebrush Grass
Bee Balm
Scudder’s Bush Katydid nymph on Bee Balm. These little guys are all over the yard flowers now.
Garden Phlox – the swallowtail butterflies and bees are frequently seen feeding on these flowers.
Tiger Lily. These majestic flowers are not native, but have taken up a section of our yard, much to the liking of swallowtail butterflies and the hummingbirds.
This small jumping spider grabbed a planthopper nymph off a Tiger Lily leaf and was taking a lunch break when I saw it.
This is one of the few Cardinal Flowers that is not caged to protect it from the ravenous rabbit that unfortunately seems to prefer cutting this wildflower species over all the others in our yard. We’ll see how long it lasts.
One of the best pollinator plants in our yard, the long-blooming Starry Rosinweed.
The Smooth Oxeye plants are often defoliated by Silvery Checkerspot butterfly caterpillars, but not this year (so far)
Narrowleaf Mountain Mint
My new favorite wildflower, the rare Plymouth Gentian. I bought two of these at a native plant sale this summer and put them along the edge of one of the water gardens (they grow naturally along riverbanks that experience drawdown in the summer).
Plymouth Gentian close-up.

Hope you can see some of your favorite firework shapes in these beauties. And I hope you all have a wonderful holiday. May we all work to make our country a more inclusive home for all of us and the wild places we share it with in the coming year.

Bathing Beauties

Splish, splash, I was takin’ a bath…

~Bobby Darin and Murray Kaufman

I’ve settled into a routine now of sitting in the chair where I can see the waterfall every morning with my coffee, again at lunch, and often late in the day while working on the computer. The birds seem most active early and late, often before there is much light at all. But video is more forgiving than still photos on my camera so I have started taking short clips of the varied bird life that comes to partake of the moving water for either a drink or a bath. The most frequent visitors are a couple of male Scarlet Tanagers and some (one?) male Black-throated Blue Warblers. Below is a series of (some might say provocative) video clips of who has been caught bathing in our pool. Videos are best viewed full screen.

–Black-throated Blue Warblers have been regular visitors to the waterfall lately

— One or more female Black-throated Blues finally have started coming to bathe and drink

— These male Scarlet Tanagers have been my favorites and they are daily visitors (usually multiple times a day)

–This interaction caught us by surprise

Melissa was next to the camera and started filming for that last clip when a male Scarlet Tanager landed and started splashing. What happened next was a wonderful surprise for both of us. A male Baltimore Oriole landed and essentially chased off the smaller tanager. We have been hearing these migratory birds for a week or more singing in the trees, but had not spotted one. In fact, this sighting is only the second Baltimore Oriole observed since I began keeping records many years ago.

Besides the birds shown and mentioned in the last post, we have had a few more visitors to the pool including a female Scarlet Tanager, a male American Redstart, a Red-eyed Vireo, and a gorgeous Red-shouldered Hawk that dropped by in search of a frog meal no doubt. The hawk, vireo, and the Wood Thrushes are the only birds I have not managed to get even a pic of as yet.

Female Scarlet Tanager eyeing the water (click photos to enlarge)
American Redstart male

The female Scarlet Tanager made a very brief visit late one evening so I managed only a single shot that was somewhat sharp. The male American Redstart came in and flitted back and forth, flashing his tail as they usually do. He flew through the spray of the waterfall a couple of times and then took off without settling in for a bath, so no video, just a couple of hurried photos. Can’t wait to see what else visits in the coming weeks.

Walking on Water

Walking on water is better than drowning.

~ Matshona Dhliwayo

A couple of days after we rehabbed our salamander pools, I saw a Water Strider skating across the surface of one. How did it find this new water so quickly? Striders are true bugs (Hemiptera), have wings, and can disperse by flying. Research suggests that aquatic insects are attracted to reflective surfaces (I have seen dragonflies trying to lay eggs on shiny car surfaces). One scientist that noticed how fast Water Striders colonize new bodies of water quipped “the air must be crowded with cruising Water Striders looking for a pond”. However it happens, I’m glad it did, as I enjoy watching these insects and their herky-jerky movements and the dimpled shadows they create on the water.

Water Strider on the surface of one of our pools (click photos to enlarge)

Water Striders (aka water skimmers, pond skaters, Jesus bugs) achieve their seemingly divine mobility through a combination of factors – the surface tension of water and the striders’ long legs that help distribute their weight over a larger area. Plus, those legs have retractable claws that occur before the tip of the leg (so they don’t puncture the surface tension). And the legs and body are covered by hundreds of tiny hairs per square mm, making the entire insect hydrophobic. If they are submerged by a wave or rain, they tend to pop back up to the surface because of air trapped in grooves in these hairs.

Look closely at the legs – the first pair is short and used for capturing and holding prey; the second pair are the paddles for locomotion; the last pair help spread the insects’ weight over a large surface area and act as rudders
As members of the family of True Bugs, Water Striders have a needle-like piercing, sucking mouthpart (seen here tucked up under the head)

Water Striders are fierce predators (but harmless to us) and detect their prey through ripples on the water surface. They rapidly (some estimates say they can move at speeds of a hundred body lengths per second) skate over and grab their prey, often an insect that has fallen into the water and is struggling at the surface. They then pierce it with their beak, inject enzymes which dissolve the insides of their prey, and then suck out its body fluids.

A Water Strider feeding on its prey
Carrying a prey item (perhaps a Springtail?)

While leaning on the rock walls of the pools with my camera and telephoto lens, I saw some interactions between some striders. Some seemed aggressive with one strider chasing the other off. Then there were the obvious mating behaviors, where the smaller male would mount a female and remain coupled for a long time.

Mating pair of Water Striders
But there may be a difference of opinion on this mating thing…

A few times I saw the mating pair flip over and that leaves me thinking the female is not always amenable to the male’s intentions. Here’s a quick clip in slow motion showing one such flip.

— A mating pair flips over – perhaps an attempt by the female to throw off the male

Almost ever time I visited the ponds in the past few weeks, I could find mating pairs. I found some images of their eggs online and started looking for them. Females go under water to lay eggs on solid surfaces like vegetation or rocks. The eggs hatch in about 12 days. So far, no luck in finding any, but I did see what I believe are newly hatched nymphs this week.

A Water Strider nymph

Water Strider youngsters resemble the adults (but much smaller) and lack wings (having only tiny developing wing pads). They molt several times before becoming an adult in a couple of months. These insects also apparently have something called wing polymorphism. They may or may not develop wings, and those that do, can have varying sized wings according to the stability of their watery habitat. If the habitat is small and likely to dry up, it is advantageous to have long wings for dispersal. Short or no wings are better in stable habitats like large lakes and rivers and mean less weight and reduced energy costs for movement.

Water Strider and reflection

The next time you are hanging out at a creek, lake, or small woodland pool, take a few minutes to look for leg dimples on the water and try to appreciate the amazing adaptations and behaviors of these bugs that can truly walk on water.

Clean It Out and They Will Come

When your environment is clean you feel happy motivated and healthy.

~Lailah Gifty Akita


I mentioned in an earlier post that we finally got around to cleaning out our two water gardens (aka salamander pools) in November. One had sprung a leak mid-way up its height a couple of years ago. It still held enough water for some critters but was choked with duckweed. The other sprung a leak this fall and drained, leaving a mud flat and lots of aquatic vegetation and their tangled root mats. These liners have been in for over 20 years (they are typically rated for 10) so I consider us lucky. We have a fairly narrow window for pond repairs as I want it to be late enough that cold weather has set in and numbed any Copperheads that might be hanging out in the rock walls, but before the Spotted Salamander breeding season, which can start as early as late December some years. I checked prices locally and online and purchased the liners at a place in Raleigh (prices have increased in 20 years!). I won’t bore you with the details, but I was pleased it only took us about a day each to totally re-do each pond, including cleaning out all the muck, putting in the new liner, and rebuilding and stabilizing their rock walls.

Lots of moving of rocks and debris to expose the old pond liner in the waterfall pool (click photos to enlarge)

–Removing the muck from the pools was the final step – we tried to rescue any amphibians and aquatic insects during the process

Laying out the new liners and then trimming to fit

After getting the liners in place, the difficult part is rebuilding a sturdy rock wall around each pond. Years ago, I purchased some flat rocks and then filled in with the irregular shaped stones that are so abundant on the property.

The first pool to be completed
The second pool has a small waterfall

The waterfall pool is great because we can hear the moving water from our screen porch so I like to think I am somewhere in the mountains when I hear it. The real advantage is as a possible additional attractant for birds (they love the sound of moving water), especially the neo-tropical migrants that move through our woods, so we will see what this season brings.

Our first good salamander rainfall didn’t occur until mid-February. We had a small run of salamanders and we ended up with about ten egg masses. About a month later we had a couple more nights of perfect weather for salamanders, and the bottoms of both pools were covered with spermatophores, followed a couple of nights later by lots of egg masses.

A Spotted Salamander egg mass as seen from below. The waterfall pool started off with very clear water which made observations and photography much easier (underwater photo taken with Olympus Tough camera)
Egg masses at different stages of development in the waterfall pool (underwater photo taken with Olympus Tough camera)
White embryos, as seen in the center egg mass, indicate the eggs are not viable. Studies have shown that egg mortality can be caused by a number of factors (including freezing) and may reach 20% to 40% of the total eggs laid in some years. Note that the gel of the egg mass itself can range from white-ish opaque to clear. That is the result of specific proteins in the gel. The significance and function of the opaque versus clear egg masses is unknown.
Egg masses are usually attached to twigs or underwater vegetation. I placed several tree branches in each pool for the females to utilize as attachment points for their eggs.
The egg masses grow in size over the first few days due to absorption of water
We ended up with about 100 egg masses in the two pools by mid-March!

I’ve been keeping tabs on the development of the eggs in the two pools over the last few weeks. Most have turned greenish in color due to the presence of an algae that is specific to Spotted Salamander egg masses. The algae probably gain nutrients like nitrogen from the waste products of the developing larvae and the larvae probably get oxygen from the photosynthesizing algae. Egg hatch time is temperature dependent and usually takes 4 to 6 weeks.

An egg mass a few weeks after being laid. Note the green color (due to symbiotic algae) and the progress in the development of the larvae.

The gel matrix holding the egg mass together starts to break down close to the time of hatching. I went out last week and lifted some of the twigs holding the egg masses and the jelly blobs started to fall apart. I gently placed one in a clear container and went inside to get my phone to photograph it. By the time I returned, there was a lot of activity in the container. Here is a quick video clip…

–the final stage of an egg mass – Spotted Salamander larvae breaking free of the gel matrix.

If you pause the video and look closely, you can see the tiny straight appendages dangling down near the head that serve as balancers for the newly hatched larva (there are also branched external gills at the head). After a couple of days, the balancers are reabsorbed when the larva is stronger and can swim and maintain an upright position in the water column.

I dipped in the pool yesterday and found one larva that has grown considerably and is now an active swimmer. Here’s hoping that many of them survive and transform into terrestrial juveniles in a couple of months. I look forward to their return on some cold and rainy nights in the years to come.

Woods Watching

I’m always astonished by a forest. It makes me realise that the fantasy of nature is much larger than my own fantasy. I still have things to learn.

~ Gunter Grass

Things have slowed a bit on the trail cameras out back, but we still get some nice surprises from time to time. Here are a few of them from the past couple of weeks.

In all my years here, I have only seen one Wild Turkey in the neighborhood, and that was years ago, walking down our gravel road. But, in the last year, the trail cameras have captured three, two of them in the past two weeks.

Late note – after writing this, Melissa saw a turkey out back late yesterday afternoon, just beyond our deer fence!

Wild Turkey strolling through our woods

— A different Wild Turkey wanders through the same spot a week later

I moved a trail camera to an area with a log on the ground that had a few interesting looking holes along it that might be some sort of burrow entrance. I left it there over a week and never saw anything going in or out of the holes. But, it was a regular squirrel highway, and one day, this hawk dropped in, perhaps thinking it might partake of a rodent snack, but no such luck.

— An adult Red-tailed Hawk surveying the scene

After a few weeks absence, the Coyotes have made a reappearance on three cameras. Here are two clips. Pause this first clip and look at the Coyote – either a big meal or perhaps soon-to-be pups in that belly?

— A quick day-time glimpse of a Coyote – note the full belly

And this guy looks a bit smaller, maybe a youngster from last year?

— A smaller Coyote on the Opossum log

Looking forward to what other hidden gems the cameras show us in our woods.