Sweeping Grass and Rolling Logs

The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.

~Mark Van Doren

We had an adventure on one of the last weeks of summer camp at the Garden. It was all about discoveries – trees, dragonflies, aquatic macroinvertebrates, field and forest insects and animal tracks and signs. A highlight for me was sharing the incredible diversity of Mason Farm Biological Reserve with those budding naturalists. We sampled both field habitats and forest edges using various techniques from sweep nets (swinging a mesh net back and forth through tall grasses and examining your catch) to log rolling (gently turning over downed logs to check for decomposers and other critters).

Phidippus clarus, Brilliant Jumper, good eye view

Brilliant jumper, Phidippus clarus, in a sweep net (click photos to enlarge)

The kids were excited about their finds as they swept the nets back and forth along the edge of the meadows. I was so busy helping them catch and identify things I didn’t have much time to photograph anything, but when one camper saw a tiny jumping spider in his net, I had to grab the camera. I have a weakness for jumping spiders and their bold colors, huge eyes, and “inquisitive personalities”.

Phidippus clarus, Brilliant Jumper, looking up

Brilliant jumper right before it did just that (up onto my lens)

I later identified it as a brilliant jumper based on the green chelicerae and the orange pattern on the abdomen. I shot several images as it crawled about the edge of the net, pausing frequently to stare up at my camera gear looming overhead. It finally did what they often do, and leapt up onto my lens, ending its photo session.

Rabid wolf spider, Rapidosa rapida?

Rabid wolf spider, Rabidosa rabida

As we walked along the forest edge, someone spotted a huge wolf spider. I bent over for a closer look and a quick picture of its enormous (and numerous) eyes. I’m not sure how the common and scientific names came about (rabidus is Latin for wild, crazy, raging), but maybe some early arachnologist laid down and looked into the face of one of these huge spiders and felt a slight twinge just as I did.

We showed the campers the proper technique for rolling a log (gently roll it toward you so that any larger critters can escape away from you instead of coming at you).

Psallis beetle in gallery in log

Passalus beetle, Odontotaenius disjunctus, in one of their tunnels in a log

One log revealed a treasure trove of beetles – some adult passalus beetles (in the family Passalidae), and several large beetle grubs. These common large beetles are also called patent leather beetles, horned beetles, horned passalus beetles, bess beetles, and many other common names,

unid beetle grub;  not a psallis 1

Large beetle grub under log

The first two grubs were huge, curled in a C shape under the log. I did a quick glance and told the excited kids those were probably the larvae of the passalus beetles and bent down to pick one up. I then noticed another larva crawling nearby. It was slightly slimmer and was actively moving instead of being curled up.

Psallis beetle grub on finger for scale

Another, more slender, beetle grub

At first, I assumed they were just different ages of passalus beetle grubs. I remembered reading that their larvae have a reduced pair of legs used for stridulation (making sound by rubbing one body part against another, in this case, the reduced leg against the adjacent larger leg).

Unid beetle grub; probbly not a psallis

A closer look at the first grub shows 3 pairs of legs with the first pair slightly reduced

I always had wanted a photo of the reduced pair of legs (it’s what we nature photographer types do) so I flipped over one of the larger grubs and took a couple of quick shots. Sure enough, the first pair of legs was smaller then the other two pair. We gently replaced that log to its original position and rolled another. More beetles! And something else…

Psallis beetle pupa

Beetle pupa

There were a couple of beetle pupae under the log (I assumed they were passalus beetles). This was really cool as I had never seen large beetle pupae before. One was attached to the underside of the log in what looked like a chamber made of wood debris and maybe beetle frass.

Immature psallis beetle

Juvenile passalus beetle is brown in color

There was also a brown-colored passalus beetle. These are juveniles and they will gradually darken to black as they mature (I wasn’t able to find how long this takes).

Adult psallis beetle

Adult passalus beetle is black

Passalus beetles are fascinating critters and a frequent live animal used for environmental education demonstrations. They are one of the few beetles that are social and tend their young. They feed by chewing galleries through the soft wood of downed trees and then re-ingesting their frass after it has been colonized by bacteria and fungi. They also feed this mixture to their larvae. One way they maintain this social structure is through a complex communication system created by stridulation. Adults stridulate by rubbing rows of spines on the undersides of the soft, flying wings (the membranous wings hidden under their hard outer wing structures – the elytra) against a hardened textured area on the top of their abdomen. As I mentioned earlier, the larvae can also make sounds, and these are believed to be important not only for social communication, but also defense against predators. Pick a beetle up and hold it close to your ear, and you are likely to hear some squeaks (click this link to hear passalus beetle stridulation). This same reference states that passalus beetles have 17 known audio signals for both adults and larvae, making it the most elaborate sound communication system known for any arthropod.

I was all set to write up a blog post when I double-checked my information on the life cycle using various online resources. Then it happened…I began to think I had made a mistake in my identification of the large grubs. I found a reference that stated passalus grubs have a reduced pair of legs, but it is the third pair, not the first, as I had seen on the large grubs. Plus, it said these small legs were so reduced as to be difficult to see. Dang, I had to go back and check out those grubs again. Well, as luck would have it, it rained a lot the next day and the creek rose making it tough to drive across to Mason Farm. Things were busy at work that week, but as I was walking on our nature trail one afternoon preparing for a program, I saw a log off the side of the path. I walked over and flipped it, hoping to find…

Psallis beetle grub and adult

Passalus beetle adult and larva

There was an adult passalus beetle and a large slender grub! There were actually a couple of grubs under that log, so I gently grabbed one and flipped it over to look at its legs.

Psallis beetle grub showing reduced leg

The third pair of legs is greatly reduced on this grub

Yes, indeed, that third pair of legs is reduced and very difficult to even see on a passalus beetle larva! So, I had been wrong in my ID on that first quick glance. Those large grubs are most likely the larvae of some other beetle, perhaps a stag beetle. Not only did they not have the greatly reduced third pair of legs, but they were all curled into a C shape. Passalus grubs are usually straighter in posture and more slender. I’m not sure about the pupae, as I didn’t manipulate them to see all sides, but I think they still may have been passalus pupae. It was a good reminder that I need to make careful observations and to double-check my information. Of course, now I want to go back and check on the pupae and see if they are still there, and, if so, maybe keep one to see what emerges. It also showed me that there is always something more to learn about even the common creatures we share our world with, and that learning truly is a life-long endeavor.

Garden Ramblings

A garden must combine the poetic and the mysterious with a feeling of serenity and joy.

~Luis Barragan

If I am going to be working, it may as well be in a beautiful place like the North Carolina Botanical Garden! Just walking to and from my car offers glimpses of beauty and wonder every day. But, my favorite time is after the gates close and everyone has gone home…a stroll through the quiet garden habitats can be magical. Here is some of that magic from the last few weeks.

Bumblebee on Great Blue Lobelia

Bumblebee gathering pollen and nectar from a great blue lobelia (click photos to enlarge)

Green frog juvenile

Green frog resting on a floating leaf as it transforms from a tadpole to a frog

Pitcher plants

The symmetry of some Okefenokee hooded pitcher plants

Young snapping turtle

A young snapping turtle in our Coastal Plain habitat

Yellow Fringed Orghid

The delicate flowers of yellow-fringed orchid

Meadow beauty seed "pod"

The urn-shaped seed vessel of meadow beauty

Aphids

Aphids gathering for a picnic

Jack in the Pulpit seeds

Jack-in-the-pulpit seeds ripening to their striking red color

Baby box turtle

A young (maybe 2 years old) Eastern box turtle on the path

Silver-spotted skipper on pickerel weed

Silver-spotted skipper on pickerelweed

American lotus seed head close up

Close up of the seed head of an American lotus

American lotus seeds close up

After the seeds of an American lotus mature

Green Lynxx Spider

A green lynx spider awaiting a meal

Catching Up

You are surrounded by gifts every living moment of every day. Let yourself feel appreciation for their presence in your life and take the time to acknowledge their splendor.

~Lou G. Nungesser

It has been a whirlwind summer thus far with work keeping me a little busier than I care to be at times. I have had several opportunities to carry a camera but not as much time as I like to post things or learn more about the many plants and critters I have encountered. So, here is a rambling collection of things I have seen in recent weeks. It is truly amazing how much beauty and wonder surrounds us.

Nessus sphinx moth egg on VA Creeper

Nessus sphinx moth (Amphion floridensis) egg (click photos to enlarge)

One morning during summer camp, I spotted a beautiful Nessus sphinx moth hovering near some Virginia creeper leaves, one of their host plants. The gathered summer campers were able to witness her laying three eggs. I collected one to raise since one egg had only one leaf for the future larva to consume.

Nessus sphinx larva about 2 days after hatching

Nessus sphinx larva two days after hatching

Nessus sphinx larva

Six days later it looks like this…still a long way to go

Walnut sphinx moth just after emergence

Walnut sphinx moth (Amorpha juglandis)

The pupa I shared in an earlier post produced this beautiful walnut sphinx moth about two weeks after the pupa formed.

Swamp milkweed

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Hibiscus flower buds

Rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) flower buds

American lotus flower

American lotus flower (Nelumbo lutea)

Cardinal flower

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

Cranefly orchid

Cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor) – the delicate flower stalk appears in late summer, long after the single leaf disappears

I need to spend more time appreciating the incredible flowers that surround me every day…after all, I do work at a botanical garden!

Southern flannel moth

Southern flannel moth (Megalopyge opercularis), the adult of a bizarre, so-called stinging caterpillar, the puss caterpillar (or asp)

Rosy maple moth

A strikingly beautiful rosy maple moth (Dryocampa rubicunda)

Clymene moth

Clymene moth (Haploa clymene)

We set out moth lights on a couple of nights the past few weeks and were rewarded with a variety of nocturnal visitors. Shown above are a few of my favorites.

small hellgrammite

Small Eastern dobsonfly (Corydalus cornutus) larva (also called a hellgrammite) found under a rock in the swift waters of Morgan Creek

Pickerel frog

Pickerel frog (Lithobates palustris)

Powdered dancer damselfly, male

Powdered dancer damselfly (Argia moesta), male

Margined Madtom 1

Margined madtom, Noturus insignis, a small (~5 inches) catfish found in swift waters like Morgan Creek

One of our favorite summer camp activities is a hike out to Morgan Creek, where we sample a riffle area in this surprisingly pristine Piedmont stream. We always manage to see a variety of interesting creatures including hellgrammites, caddisfly larvae, mayflies, crayfish, and a few species of fish.

Robber fly and moth victim

Robber fly with moth victim

Walnut caterpillar

Walnut caterpillars (Datana integerrima) feeding on hickory leaves

Resident bullfrog

Huge male American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus)

Argiope spiders

A pair of female black and yellow argiope spiders (Argiope aurantia) – they are also commonly called writing spiders and garden spiders

Any stroll through the Garden produces a rich variety of sights and sounds. The key is, you have to be out there to enjoy them. So, get outside and see what you can find.

 

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 Рthis 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.