Summer Details

The beauty of the natural world lies in the details.

~ Natalie Angier

It has been a hectic few weeks at work with summer camp. One good thing is I am out in the Garden daily, and, anytime you are out in a place with that much diversity, there are plenty of things to see. I managed to take the camera out a few days before and after camp, and found some interesting subjects. Here are a few of the recent highlights…

Waved sphinx larva

Waved sphinx moth larva feeding on fringetree (click photos to enlarge)

Walnut sphinx pupa

The mummy-like pupa of a walnut sphinx moth (the antennae of the future moth can be seen outlined in the pupa as they curl down from the top into a point just above my finger)

Snowy Tree Cricket
Snowy tree cricket  (Oecanthus fultoni), male – this is the so-called thermometer cricket. The frequency of the chirps made by this species (made by the males as they rub their wings together) is considered a fairly reliable estimate of the air temperature. In the Eastern U.S., Fahrenheit temperature can be estimated by counting the chirps in 13 sec. and adding 40.
Yellow jackets on caterpillar

Yellow jackets dispatch a pink-striped oakworm to feed to their larvae

Rabbit running in Garden

One of the many bunnies that reside at the Garden (quite happily, I presume)

Black-spotted prominent

Gardener’s friend – a black-spotted prominent larva feeding on lespedeza

Black-spotted prominent rear end

This caterpillar practices deceit with its back end looking like a front end

Sassafras berries

The beautiful and wildlife-friendly berries of a sassafras tree

Handsome Trig 1

A handsome trig (also called a red-headed bush cricket). This one is a male. The handsome part is self-evident; the trig part refers to the family Trigonidiinae, or Winged Bush Crickets.

Handsome Trig nymph

Handsome trig nymph (wings are still developing)

Dogbane Leaf Beetle

Dogbane leaf beetle, an iridescent beauty

Planthopper - Rhyncomitra microrhina

A very pointy-headed planthopper (Rhyncomitra microrhina) that we caught while sweep-netting

Planthopper - Rhyncomitra microrhina, top view

Dorsal view of same planthopper

Rear end of tulip tree silk moth cayerpillar

All is well that ends well…the rear end of a tuliptree silk moth caterpillar. Eggs were laid by a female on 5/18/17, hatched on 5/30; caterpillars had all pupated by 6/29; first adult moth of this summer’s second generation emerged on 7/20. This new generation will overwinter as pupae.

 

Ambushed

We are not afraid of predators, we are transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal way, we love our monsters…

~Ecologist, E.O. Wilson

I took a stroll through the Garden after work one day this week, looking for some flowers to photograph as a backdrop for a needed poster. I wanted a flower off to one side, with black background for the lettering.

Ironweed, which sp?

Ironweed (click photos to enlarge)

I stopped at an ironweed plant, a great nectar source for all sort sorts insects, and took a few quick shots. I saw some movement on another plant, and went over to grab a pic of a pollinator…

Silver-spotted skipper on ironweed

Silver-spotted skipper on ironweed

The skipper was moving from flower to flower, probing for nectar. I moved to get another angle, and noticed something odd dangling below another flower…

Silver-spotted skipper hanging from Ironweed

Silver-spotted skipper dangling below a flower – look closely at the flower

It was another silver-spotted skipper, apparently hanging by its proboscis. How did that happen? As I bent down to look, I noticed something on the underside of the ironweed flower – a small insect – a jagged ambush bug, genus Phymata. This is one of the sit-and-wait predators often seen lurking on flowers, waiting for an unsuspecting pollinator to get too close. Most predators of this sort are camouflaged to help conceal them while they wait. This one appears to look more like the developing seeds in the flower to the right in this picture, than the bright purple of the flower itself, so I am guessing it waited on the underside and grabbed the much larger skipper when it landed. I gently touched this tiny tiger to get it to move up for a better look.

Jagged ambush bug close up

Jagged ambush bug close up

Ambush bugs are stout-bodied predators with enlarged, raptorial front legs, somewhat resembling those of a praying mantis. They look like some sort of alien tank out of a science fiction movie to me.

Jagged ambush bug beak

Powerful beak of an ambush bug can be seen here tucked under its head

When a prey gets close enough, they lash out and grab it with those legs and stab it with their powerful beak, injecting toxic saliva with digestive enzymes. As the insides of their prey dissolve, the ambush bug sucks up the nutrients, leaving an empty shell of its victim behind. I am guessing this skipper had just settled in for a nice sip of nectar when terror struck, leaving its proboscis stuck down in a flower tube which led to the scene I discovered.

Ambush Bug

Jagged ambush bug

The bug soon walked out onto the stem for an better view, so I snapped a few more images, When I looked at them on my laptop this morning, I noticed something else…

Hitchhiker on ambush bug

Another insect hitching a ride on the ambush bug

During the entire sequence of shots of the ambush bug, it had another insect (or perhaps an insect larva) crawling around its body. Was it a harmless hitchhiker, or some parasite? A quick web search showed another image of an ambush bug with what looks like a small lacewing larva hitching a ride, and my somewhat fuzzy image looks similar. Coincidence or collaboration? I guess I will try to find this little guy again next week and see if I can get a better image of the hitchhiker for identification and clarification of this mystery.

 

 

Birds in the Garden

Poor indeed is the garden in which birds find no homes.

~ Abram L. Urban

This garden (NC Botanical Garden) is anything but poor if the birds are any indication. Bird activity seems to have increased dramatically the past few weeks. Many seem to be thinking of the coming nesting season…bluebirds singing from atop nest boxes, a house finch gathering nest materials, and a brown-headed nuthatch checking out a cavity in a snag. And bird activity in the feeding station near the bird blind has really picked up. We moved the feeders closer to the blind this week and I went down yesterday for about 15 minutes to see what was happening. The late afternoon light is not conducive to photography from the blind itself, so I was just standing out near the feeders with the light coming in over my shoulder. It didn’t take long for things to get busy, very busy. In 15 minute I saw 16 species, with some great views of most. I’m hoping to create some interpretive information so I grabbed a few photos while standing in the midst of the avian mess hall.

cardinal and bluebird

It’s not every day you see these two species at the same feeder (click photos to enlarge)

brown-headed nuthatch on suet log

Brown-headed nuthatch on suet log

tufted titmouse

Tufted titmouse

white-breasted nuthatch

White-breasted nuthatch

northern cardinal

Northern cardinal female

downy woodpecker

Downy woodpecker

pine warbler and reflection

Pine warbler

Here is a list of species seen yesterday in the bird observation area (not bad for 15 minutes):

Eastern Bluebird; Northern Cardinal; Carolina Chickadee; Tufted Titmouse; White-breasted Nuthatch; Brown-headed Nuthatch; Yellow-rumped Warbler; Pine Warbler; Downy Woodpecker; Mourning Dove; Brown-headed Cowbird; Dark-eyed Junco; White-throated Sparrow; House Finch; Ruby-crowned Kinglet; Carolina Wren

Red-shoulders

The sparrow flying behind the hawk thinks the hawk is fleeing.

~Japanese proverb

Red-shouldered hawk

Red-shouldered hawk at the NC Botanical Garden (click photos to enlarge)

Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to work with my friend, Mary, to provide an introductory bird photography class at the NC Botanical Garden (NCBG) in Chapel Hill. It was next to the last in a series of programs that were part of the Saving Our Birds program initiative the Garden has sponsored this year. For part of the program, we went outside into the brisk morning air, spending time in their very active bird blind area, and the rest of the time walking around the native plant display gardens, looking for birds to photograph. The highlight of the day was a beautiful red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus), that was most obliging to our group.

red-shouldered hawk back view

Back view of red-shouldered hawk

Red-shouldered hawks are medium-sized buteos (soaring hawks) easily recognized by their rusty, barred breast, and the bold black-and-white bands on their tail. Immature birds are a bit tougher to identify – their tail is dark brown with several narrow brown bars and they have a pale breast with thick dark streaking that somewhat resembles several other common raptors. The area around the display gardens at NCBG has been home to at least one pair of red-shouldered hawks for several years. They seem well-adjusted to the comings and goings of people at the Garden. This one was perched in a tree near the building complex for much of the morning and early afternoon. This allowed our class to photograph it from many angles so we could try to avoid the cluster of twigs and branches that surrounded the hawk. The light was perfect and the bird cooperative, a perfect scenario for photographers.

red-shouldered hawk close up of shoulder

They have rusty red coloration on the feathers on their shoulders (lesser upperwing coverts)

After the program, I went back out to the tree with my 500mm lens and spent over an hour with this beautiful bird, watching it, and taking way too many photos. I appreciated the chance to simply observe this raptor and take notice of its many traits and adaptations. The light was so rich that I could clearly see the reddish colors of their shoulder feathers that gives this species its common name.

red-shouldered hawk open eye

“Eyes like a hawk” means someone with exceptional vision

The feature that stood out for me was its eyes…so intense, so fierce. According to several online resources, raptors can see anywhere from four to eight times better than the average human. This is accomplished by a couple of adaptations. The eyes of a hawk are proportionally larger than a human eye, occupying some 10-15% of the weight of the head, compared to about 1% in humans. Hawks also have more concentrated areas of rods and cones than we do, giving them higher resolution (sharper) vision. They have two fovea (one central and one peripheral) compared to just a central one in humans. The fovea is the spot on the back of our eye with the highest concentration of rods and cones.

Like us, raptors have binocular vision, with the eyes placed facing forward on the head. This allows them (and us) to judge distances better and to focus on something with both eyes at once. Hawks can also reportedly perceive more colors than us, and can also see ultraviolet light (which may help in tracing urine trails of small mammals in vegetation).

nictitating membrane half open 2

The nictitating membrane sweeps from front to back

A bird also have some extra protection for their eye, a third eyelid called a nictitating membrane. This is a thin, translucent membrane that is used for protecting, lubricating, and cleaning the eye. A bird can still see when this membrane covers the eye, whereas we cannot when our eyelid closes. Birds also have a moveable upper and lower eyelid. The upper eyelid moves downward when a bird blinks. The lower eyelid moves upward when a bird sleeps. The nictitating membrane moves horizontally across a bird’s eye, sweeping from front to back. Based on my afternoon of hawk-watching, birds must use the nictitating membrane much more frequently than they do their upper eyelid. I took about 680 images (see what I mean, way too many) of the hawk that afternoon and captured 6 sweeps with the nictitating membrane, and no blinks with the upper eyelid.

red-shouldered hawk talons

Talons are long, sharp claws

Red-shouldered hawks feed on a variety of prey including reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals. Their feet and talons are used to capture and hold struggling prey.

red-shouldered hawk head from side

A hawk profile showing the sharp hooked beak

Hawks have sharp, hooked beaks used to grab prey, pull off fur, skin, or feathers, and tear the meat into bite-sized chunks. I kept hoping this hawk would sail down to capture something, but all it did was occasionally focus on some unseen item of interest in the vegetation around me.

hawk preening 1

Scratching an itch

Hawk preening

Preening

hawk preening head back over shoulder

Checking out the back side

In addition to watching everything around it, the hawk occasionally did what all birds spend a lot of time doing – preening its beautiful feathers. Preening is accomplished by running the feathers through the talons or beak, gently pulling and realigning feathers for their optimum condition. This feather grooming can also help rid them of parasites, debris, and make them look their best for attracting mates. Mutual preening is also a part of the courtship ritual in some species.

red-shouldered hawk stretch

Hawk wing stretch

red-shouldered hawk ready to poop

The forward lean…

red-shouldered hawk pooping

…and let it fly!

I suppose it is fitting that toward the end of my time with my hawk, I witnessed the other end of the meal process, its elimination. After stretching its wings, the hawk leaned forward, raised its tail, and let fly with a white mass of bird poop that shot downward with considerable force. I often see them do this right before taking flight (it makes sense to lighten the load before take-off). Maybe this was just a commentary on my presence (or perhaps current events), but I decided to take the hint and pack up my camera and tripod and let the hawk go about its business for the rest of the afternoon. But I will be back and will photograph it again, hoping to capture some more behavior of this regal “garden” bird.