Butterflies, Blooms, and Bears

Summer is a promissory note signed in June, its long days spent and gone before you know it, and due to be repaid next January.

~Hal Borland

I headed down to Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge last week for an “end of summer” day trip (actually more of a “before hunting season begins” road trip). The refuge allows deer and small game hunting and archery season for deer begins next week. I was hoping for a post holiday weekend lull in visitation so I packed up and drove into the rising sun Tuesday morning. My goal was to spend some time with bears, but, as always, I knew there would be some natural highlights to observe, along with the joy of simply spending time in a wild place that I love.

There was a hint of crispness in the air, that sure-fire sign that summer is winding down. Nearing the refuge, I drove past fields where the corn had recently been harvested, which tells me the bears will be busy in the refuge fields harvesting their own share of the crop. The roadsides were showing signs of fall in other ways too, with swaths of autumn flowers growing along the canal edges. Yellows and purples seem to dominate the flower colors this time of year, a nice visual combination and another sign of the changing season.

The most abundant refuge roadside flower right now, Bitterweed or Sneezeweed (Helenium sp.) (click photos to enlarge)
Blue Mistflower, Conoclinium coelestinum

I got out and walked along some of the grassy roads, looking for bears and observing the many wildflowers and butterflies. I saw several fresh-looking Monarchs, no doubt on their long journey to Mexico. The beautiful Three-nerved Joe-Pye-Weed was a favorite nectar stop for many species. I wonder if that species of Joe-Pye would do well in our yard? It blooms later, is shorter than the one we have by a couple of feet, and is a darker pink in color.

Monarch Butterfly on Three-nerved Joe-Pye-Weed (Eutrochium dubium)
Black Swallowtail on Three-nerved Joe-Pye-Weed

Along the now closed South Lake Road (I see they are working on it, so I hope it will be open by winter), I saw several butterflies stopping to sun in the open sandy spots, and a few were stopping at the local roadside diner to partake of the daily special – bear scat.

A Red Admiral that has probably had an encounter with a bird’s beak
A Buckeye with its bold eyespot wing pattern
A fresh Zebra Swallowtail imbibing on some mineral-rich bear scat
A Viceroy checking out the menu selection on another pile of bear poo
A Viceroy caterpillar feeding on willow leaves

With my eyes trained on finding the small things hidden in the roadside vegetation, I spotted an otter trail going into the canal through some tall weeds, so I set my camera and telephoto lens down and walked a few feet to peer over the canal bank and photograph some of the goldenrod’s intense yellow flowers with my phone.

Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) flowers stand in bold contrast to the dark canal waters and green pocosin shrubs

When I stepped through the vegetation, my eye caught movement on the opposite side of the canal. There were two of us surprised by this encounter…me (sans camera) and a very large boar Black Bear. I slowly moved back to retrieve my camera, and he grudgingly left the water and ambled back into the vegetation, giving me one glance before slinking off and disappearing into the thick greenery. That was bear #3 of the morning, but the closest by far.

This large bear was in shallow water at the edge of a canal when I accidentally surprised him (and me)

After the bruin hello, I continued on toward the north shore of Pungo Lake. This time of year I always stop the vehicle and scope far down the road ahead of me to see if I see any sticks moving in the road – snakes. As soon as I headed down West Lake Rd., I saw a skinny twig move. I rushed up to it and was pleased to see an Eastern Ribbon Snake. This species is usually found near water (this one was crossing from a canal to a large marshy area) and feed on small fish and amphibians.

Eastern Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis sauritus)

I hiked in to a small pond on the back side of a refuge crop field in hopes of seeing a bear cooling off, but there were none. However, I was rewarded with a couple of unusual robber flies flitting about in the tall grass. I could see they had very long, dangling legs. As I walked, they would fly off a few feet and land again in the grasses, hanging by one or two of their legs in the tangle of linear blades. One in particular caught my eye as it was carrying a prey item (I think some type of Digger Wasp). I had my telephoto lens so it was a challenge to get down and find a spot that wasn’t entirely blocked by crisscrossed grass blades.

One of the so-called Hanging-Thieves Robber Flies (probably Diogmites salutans), showing its typical posture when consuming prey – dangling by one or two legs and clinging to the prey with the others

When I looked it up back home, this group goes by the apt name of Hanging-Thieves. They usually prey on wasps and bees but are known to also take dragonflies and other robber flies.

Looking head-on as it shows its strength by hanging on with one leg

I soon headed over to my favorite location, “Bear Road”, to see if it had the usual array of parked cars at the gate. To my pleasant surprise, their was only one vehicle and I could see one person walking back toward his car. I decided this was my lucky day and I parked and headed down the road for the first time this season. My knee has been bothering me a lot lately so, instead of my usual habit of walking down the road and into the woods, I carried a camp chair and sat toward the far end of the corn field that lies across the canal from the grassy road. I have seen many photographers and bear watchers do this over the years (especially in the recent past) but I always hesitated. I especially don’t care for people sitting adjacent to major bear paths that run from the woods, across “Bear Road” and into the canals for access to the corn. I just think it may cause too much stress if the bears encounter a person up close as they emerge from the woods. If I am walking, the bears can usually see me at a distance, take action to avoid me by going into the woods until I pass, and then come back out to resume their trek to the food bank. After spending a couple of hours sitting along the road with no one else around, I decided I was correct in my concerns.

I spotted three bears crossing into or out of the field within 15 minutes of being there. Things settled down and I waited another half hour before a young sow and lone cub of the year (COY) appeared far down the road, walking my way. She was steadily moving toward me with the cub stopping, then scrambling to catch up. At one point she stood up briefly, looking my way, but probably unsure of what I was. I was sitting along the edge of the road but not in the tall grasses due to the abundance of poison ivy, so i wasn’t particularly hidden. I expected her to do what most bears (especially those with cubs) do, and head into the safety of the woods and either attempt to wait me out or go beyond me before coming back out into the road. But, she didn’t, she just kept coming.

Sow and cub of the year headed toward the corn field

I started talking to her, advising that she shouldn’t get any closer and hoping she would head off. She paused, the cub stood up, and she continued on. The cub then decided it wanted none of this strange thing and headed into the woods. Mom just walked past me, never even giving me a glance as she did. I will admit, that is the first time I have ever pulled my bear spray out of the holster, but I now think she is just so used to people being on that road and sitting just like I was, that she wasn’t spooked. And that gives me pause, as that probably is not in the best interest of her (or the people).

The cub gives me a wary side eye (cropped image with telephoto)

Once she was 100 feet or so beyond my location, the cub came racing out of the woods near her and they both continued to a crossing point, swam across the canal and headed into the corn.

A few minutes later, another sow and two cubs came walking down the road. This time, however, she noticed me from far down the road and began to stand up trying to ascertain what was ahead.

Another young female with two COYs (one is hidden behind mama in this pic)
Black Bear and cubs walking down the road and she takes note of the strange object ahead (me)
She stands up again and decides she wants no part of whatever that is ahead and takes her cubs into the woods

After getting within about 50 yards or so, she stands up one more time and then takes her young ones into the woods. A few minutes later, she and the cubs emerge far beyond where i am sitting. She looks back my way, and walks on toward a spot to cross the canal.

One of the cubs mimics its mama and looks back at the strange object that had been in their path

Some other bear watchers showed up and I soon found myself exchanging pleasantries with three people on E-bikes (the apparent new rage for wildlife photographers on the eastern refuges). Four other people hung back at the gate and watched. I decided it was time to move on, but another bear appeared far down the road before I could get packed up. It did something strange and came out of the woods, and walked around several times, sniffing, and then laid down in the road. It remained there for several minutes, yawned a few times, then got back up and moved across into the tall vegetation to swim the canal. As it disappeared into the tall grasses, two COYs came streaking out of the woods to join her.

A bear decides to chill in the middle of “Bear Road”

So, I left the refuge that day with a total of 18 different bear sightings (plus a couple of repeats of bears that crossed into and then back out of the corn field). A magical day to be sure, but one that left me wondering about my impact on the bears and how having so many people now on that road may be habituating some bears to humans With bear hunting season approaching in December, I worry that bears that become too used to us will not be as wary as needed to survive. Plus, it is never a good idea to have bears and humans become too complacent about each other. I probably won’t be sitting on that road in prime bear season in the future, but will continue with my former mode of slowly walking, letting the bears know way ahead of time that there is a human nearby. Not sure if it makes much difference, but it will make me feel better. I suppose the best approach is to watch bears from afar and photograph them from your vehicle whenever possible. Here’s hoping bears and humans continue to coexist on this and other refuges because there really is something special about seeing bears in the wild.

That Time of Year Again – Bees Beware

To every thing there is a season…

~Ecclesiastes

On several of my wanderings these past few days, I have heard noticeable buzzing sounds that indicate an acceleration and flyby of a large winged insect. I recognize these sounds to be from a fascinating group, the robber flies, family Asilidae. I remembered posting about them last year and when I looked it up, it was almost exactly the same week last summer when I started seeing these amazing aerial predators in the yard.

robber fly with honey bee looking from side

Robber fly with honey bee prey (click photos to enlarge)

And, once again, the first one I saw with a prey item last week had managed to capture a honey bee. Their preference for bees is one reason this particular species is also called the false bee-killer (although not really so false).

robber fly with honey bee

Close up of a killer

A closer look reveals some of the adaptations that make robber flies so efficient at catching their prey, which, by the way, they almost always do while on the wing. They have huge eyes for spotting flying insects; large wings powered by strong muscles in the humped thorax; and long spiky legs that help them maintain a grip on something once they have grabbed it in mid-air.

robber fly with honey bee looking from above

Face to face with a fierce predator

This one did what they all do after catching something – flew to a perch to start consuming its prey shortly after capture. Robber flies pierce and inject their victims with toxins that immobilize the prey and begin to liquefy them. They then fly to a nearby perch and begin to imbibe on the internal soup of their quarry.

This time, however, the meal was interrupted. What had drawn me to this particular perched fly was an intense buzzing sound, not made by this fly, but by a male robber fly hovering nearby. The male had the distinctive white patch at the tail tip I had seen last summer that allowed me to identify them as Promachus bastardii, which Bug Guide calls the Big Robber. Turns out, this loud, stationary buzzing is a prelude to mating. And, sure enough, the male waited for just the right moment and then jumped on the larger, feeding female.

mating robber flies

Mating robber flies

The act didn’t last long as I heard another buzzing sound and saw another male hovering nearby…the lady has two suitors. The first male buzzed off and the other male followed, so perhaps a territorial duel ensued elsewhere in the yard.

female resuming her meal

Female continued feeding

The female, meanwhile, continued feeding. That is, until I accidentally brushed her perch while trying to lean in closer for a better view. She immediately buzzed by my head, carrying her unfinished lunch to a less crowded perch. She will eventually lay eggs at the base of  plant or in soft soil or rotting wood. The larvae are rarely seen, but resemble odd worm-like creatures living in soil and soft wood where they consume organic matter and start their predatory career by capturing soft-bodied prey around them. Larvae pupate in the soil and emerge next year, or perhaps a year or more later. I guess I will need to be on the lookout for some egg-laying behavior and see if I can’t find a larva. In the meantime, I’ll listen for that buzzing sound and see what’s for dinner.

 

Pollinator Peril

In summer the empire of insects spreads.

~Adam Zagajewski

Last week I noticed a medium-sized robber fly noisily flitting about the garden. It landed on a cedar twig on the garden fence and I leaned in for a closer look.

Promachus bastardii

Robber Fly with distinctive terminal tufts (click photos to enlarge)

It was distinctive in the bright white patch near the tail tip, something I noticed from a few feet away. As I leaned in I could see the white was actually a pair of tufts of “hairs”. I figured this might be an easy one to identify so off I went for a look in Bug Guide. Sure enough, the white tufts are diagnostic of a couple of species. After reading more about the ranges and other characteristics, I decided this was a male Promachus bastardii.

Promachus bastardii tail

Promachus bastardii abdomen

Males of this species are characterized by white tufts of hairs along the edges of the abdominal segments, black on the dorsal surface of the abdomen, and the distinctive white tufts at the tip of the abdomen.

Promachus bastardii head

Promachus bastardii head and thorax

Robber flies have several features that set them apart from other flies…large size; eyes set wide apart for better depth perception; the hairy face or the mustache of bristles called the mystax (theorized to protect the eyes during struggles with large prey); the arching thorax containing superior flight muscles (an advantage for rapid lift and flight to snag fast-flying prey out of the air); a sharp beak, partially hidden by the mystax, which is used to stab their victims, injecting toxins and digestive fluids, which allow the predator to kill the prey and suck the juices out; and long, spiky legs with what look like talons at the tips for catching and holding their prey. This is one of the so-called Giant Robber Flies, due to the group’s large size. This species is actually one of the medium-large ones in the group, and this male (which is smaller than a female) was a little over an inch in total length. I found only one reference to a common name for this species, Bee Killer, for their habit of preying on various species of Hymenoptera. The scientific name immediately catches your attention, and translates to “the bastard’s champion”. Since the species was named in 1838, it is probably lost as to the reason, but I am curious. Perhaps it was named by a fan of bees.

Promachus bastardii 1

Bee Killer with prey, a bumblebee

A few days later while strolling in the yard, camera in hand, I heard a loud buzzing noise behind me and turned to find the same species of Robber Fly (perhaps the same individual male) subduing a prey item, a small species of bumblebee. These bees are common at my wildflowers, especially the Rosinweed (Silphium sp.) that is blooming now along the driveway. The fly had already stuck its beak into the bee, which soon quit struggling.

Promachus bastardii 2

Bee Killer is aptly named

Watching this drama unfold, I admired the strength and apparent agility that is needed to catch and subdue this type of prey. And I was thankful this guy is not two feet long…few creatures in these woods would be safe from such a aerial predator.

ANOTHER POLLINATOR PREDATOR…

Tiger Swallowtail in spider web

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail in spider web

After writing this post, I found another peril for pollinators in this jungle of a yard. An orb weaver spider had strung a giant web across a main pathway through the yard and snagged one of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies that have been feeding on the Joe-Pye Weed that is now blooming. A jungle indeed.