Sunday, July 20, 2014

Lesser Grapevine Looper

A Lesser Grapevine Looper, Eulithis diversilineata, rests under your narrator's porch lights.

I found myself chained to my desk today, writing, writing, writing. Come nightfall, I took a break to see if any interesting lepidopterans had stopped in at the porch lights. Sure enough, the little oddity above was camped out on the wall. I was quite pleased, and rushed to get the camera. Lesser Grapevine Loopers are common, but I had no good photos of one, and here was the opportunity to remedy that!

Note the bizarrely curled abdomen, a very distinctive posture in this species. I suppose it is some sort of disruptive camouflage, perhaps making the resting moth appear more like a leaf with attached petiole. It certainly makes the moth an interesting photographic subject, if you ask me.

Shooting moths at night is always a challenge. Flash is essential, and it must be set properly for best results. For these shots, I used my Canon 5D Mark III, set on full manual, with the following settings: f/11, shutter speed of 1/200, and ISO at 100. Most importantly, the Canon Twin Lite flashes were mounted at the end of the 100 mm macro lens. The flash was set to ETTL mode, which it allows it to "talk" to the camera and meter the perfect amount of light.

No matter what your rig, as long as you can control the camera's settings manually, you can improve your nighttime shots. Find out what the camera's sync speed is - the fastest shutter speed that it will shoot at while using the flash. If you exceed the sync speed, the resultant photo will be partially blacked out or the camera won't shoot at all. Set the camera to f/11 (maybe f/8 on some point & shoots), ISO to 100, and the flash (built-n or external) to ETTL mode. Voila! You should end up with nicely exposed images, although some tweaking may be required.

The Lesser Grapevine Looper is one of a large cast of characters that depends on native grapes in the genus Vitis, and Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, for survival. Remove these plants, which are all too often derided as weedy, and take away the food source for legions of caterpillars.

I've written about the value of grapes and their kin RIGHT HERE.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Wood Frog, in the woods

A Wood Frog, Lithobates sylvatica, peeks from a leafy shelter in a Geauga County woodland. These small frogs are conspicuous in early spring, when mating orgies occur in vernal pools. The males belt out their ducklike quacks, which can be heard for considerable distances.

As spring progresses, and rolls into summer, the frogs become much less conspicuous. One occasionally encounters a Wood Frog by sheer happenstance, as we did in this case.

I dropped to the leaf litter, to see if the little frog would allow me better views, and photos. It did, and we can see the ornate detail that makes the Wood Frog one of our handsomest amphibians.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A prairie comes to life

This is the approximate view from my office, in a very urban part of Columbus, Ohio. In 2012, this lush growth of wildflowers was barren mowed lawn, largely lacking in life. BORING, and not at all environmentally friendly.

I approached the powers-that-be, and cajoled them into allowing us to work with Bob Kehres and Ohio Prairie Nursery to plant the one-third acre grass-scape to prairie. We did so in May 2013, and Voila! I took the photo above today, of the prairie in its second growing season. An incredible transformation has taken place, and the prairie will only grow better with age, like a fine wine.

I try to take a few minutes to stroll the prairie, camera in tow, at least once a week. I'm very interesting in documenting the profusion of life that has resulted from removing a lawn monoculture, and replacing it with numerous species of plants that are (mostly) indigenous to this area.

The cast of new characters is already lengthy: moths, butterflies, hemipterans, beetles, bees, wasps, flower flies, and much more. We have even had a male Indigo Bunting hanging around the prairie this summer, a first summering record for our 22-acre complex. As he regularly sings from the boughs of a Honey Locust on the prairie's border, I assume that our new planting has created a good enough food source to keep him happy. Hopefully he'll eventually find a mate.

Today's brief foray was noteworthy for the number of dragonflies and damselflies that I observed. There were Widow Skimmers, Eastern Forktails, Common Whitetails, Halloween Pennants, Common Green Darners and Black Saddlebags, and others that I'm probably forgetting. I don't even know where all of these dragons and damsels are coming from. We have two small wetlands elsewhere on the complex, but I doubt they are producing all of the insects that I saw today.

In the above photo, a beautiful Familiar Bluet, Enallagma civile, makes mincemeat out of some tiny victim. It was one of many bluets hunting the prairie today.

I was especially pleased to see several female Eastern Amberwings, Perithemis tenera. The females of this species seem to be wasp mimics, with their banded abdomen and habit of constantly twitching their tail end in the manner of a wasp.

Amberwings do reproduce in the wetlands on our complex, but they require surrounding buffer meadows to truly flourish. After mating and laying eggs, many female dragonflies leave the wetlands and the ruthless pursuit of the males that gather in such places. Providing an insect-rich prairie nearby is sure to lure lots of predatorial dragonflies, and my short trip into this prairie today provided ample proof of this.

If you plant it, they will come. I look forward to seeing that other wondrous beasts turn up in our prairie as the season progresses.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Butterfly Workshop recap

Yesterday, the Midwest Native Plant Society hosted a Butterfly Workshop in this building - the Caesar Creek Visitor Center, owned and managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The facility is a fabulous venue for hosting such events, and is convenient to Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus and lots of other places. We had about 105 attendees, mostly from Ohio, but also Indiana, Florida, and Kentucky. Major thanks go to the Army Corps for making the building available for such events, and to ranger Kim Baker for acting as our host. Linda Romine, also with the Corps, was also a great help.

The Midwest Native Plant Society was formed to run our upcoming Midwest Native Plant Conference, now in its sixth year. We try to put on one or two other special events annually under the MNPS banner, and the Butterfly Workshop was one of those.

Lunchtime at the workshop. We fairly well filled the place. The Caesar Creek Visitor Center is perfect for hosting such events. This capacious conference room can be set up in a variety of different ways, and features a large drop-down screen and up-to-date audio-visual. At the other end of the building is a smaller auditorium, and that was perfect for use as a concurrent breakout session room.

Major thanks go to everyone who made this event possible. Chief among them is Kathy McDonald, who oversaw all of the logistics in one form or another. Others who played key roles were Debi Wolterman, Yvonne Dunphey, Judy Ganance, and Sue Metheny. Jim Davidson, Sandy Belth and all of our speakers helped with leading field trips, and Mary Anne Barnett brought along a bunch of cool caterpillars for everyone to see. If I am forgetting anyone I apologize!

An event like this would be nothing without good presenters, and we had four topnotch ones: Jaret Daniels (author of Butterflies of Ohio), Jeff Belth (author of Butterflies of Indiana), Cheryl Harner, and Scott Hogsten. Thanks to all of them for informing and educating the group.

One of our ulterior motives was to get more native plants in the hands of more people. As you know (or should know), our butterflies, moths, and nearly all native insects and  other animals require native plants. Helping us achieve this goal was Gale Martin of Natives in Harmony nursery. She sold a ton of good plants to people, including a boatload of milkweeds (go Monarchs!).

As is our habit, the conference included field trips. We believe that it is quite important to get people outside, even though doing so often adds huge logistical headaches to a conference. A big advantage of using the Caesar Creek Visitor's Center was the abundance of diverse habitats within minutes of the building. Indeed, one of our trips explored the prairie plantings, woods, and wetland immediately adjacent to the building.

This group is wandering a large meadow full of native prairie plants, and dotted with two wetlands. Linda Romine and I led one group through here, and Jaret Daniels had another. Collectively, we found lots of cool stuff, and as is usually the case, the trips became natural history free-for-alls. We prioritized butterflies, but nothing was ignored. A definite highlight for many was an amazingly cooperative Yellow-breasted Chat that kept teeing up in plain sight and singing his odd series of hoots, squawks, grunts, and whistles. Chats can mimic well, and this one regularly performed a perfect rendition of the nearby Willow Flycatcher's soft whistled Whit! call notes.

One of the wetlands was ringed by Swamp Rose Mallow, Hibiscus moscheutos, which was just coming into flower. Both carnation and white flower forms were present. Filling the interior of the wetland - the creamy specks in the backdrop - was flowering American Lotus, Nelumbo lutea.

Nothing spikes diversity like a good wetland, and we found all sorts of interesting animals around and in these wetlands. The Corps of Engineers created these wetlands back in the 1990's, and have also planted lots of prairie species in the surrounding meadows. Today, we can enjoy the fruits of their labors, as this meadow is full of interesting animals.

Jaret Daniels holds up a Spicebush Swallowtail, Papilio troilus, that he captured for the group to study. It was released unharmed, and was one of many in the meadow. Jaret is at the University of Florida, and Director of the Florida Museum of Natural History's McGuire Center for Lepidoptera & Biodiversity. We're fortunate that he likes Ohio; he's been up here a number of times in the past decade to help out with events like this one, and share his vast knowledge.

Jaret found this tiny Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta, egg on a False Nettle, Boehmeria cylindrica, plant. It takes a sharp, trained eye to spot such minute objects. The egg taxed the limits of my 100 mm macro lens, but we can see some of its ornate sculpturing. It looks like a bluish-green barrel with prominent ribs. Red Admiral butterflies, which are among our showiest species, depend on several species of nettles for their host plants, demonstrating that even maligned native plants are quite valuable to fauna that is much appreciated by humans.

We encountered this cooperative pair of Eastern Tailed-Blues, Cupido comyntas. They were rather preoccupied with making more butterflies, which allowed our large group to closely admire them.

The wetlands were awash with dragonflies of many species. Best was a brilliant male Comet Darner, Anax longipes, but he was not as cooperative as this comparatively tiny Azure Bluet, Enallagma aspersum.

We ran across a pack of Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillars, Lophocampa caryae. working over a Black Walnut, Juglans nigra. These cats are quite showy upon close inspection.

All of the native plants that filled the meadows provided a bounty of nectar for native pollinating insects such as this Potter Wasp, Monobia quadridens.Scores of native bees, flies, wasps, beetles, butterflies, moths and other insects were seen. This wasp is on the flowers of Rattlesnake-master, Eryngium yuccifolium, a native member of the parsley family and a plant that attracts scads of interesting pollinators.

The wetlands produced a bumper crop of Northern Leopard Frogs, Lithobates pipiens, and Mike Zimmerman managed to snag one for the group's inspection. As I said, little escaped our notice or failed to capture our interest. Given the abundance of insect life in the meadows, I'm sure these frogs won't be lacking for food.

Thanks to everyone who came out, and I'm sure we'll be doing more such events in the future.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Tricolored Bats!

A tightly packed scrum of Tricolored Bats, Perimyotis subflavus, clusters in the dim recess of a building in Warren County, Ohio. I was down at Caesar Creek Reservoir last weekend to meet with our planning committee for this Saturday's Butterfly Workshop, spearheaded by the Midwest Native Plant Society (organized to run the annual Midwest Native Plant Conference). I was pleased indeed to learn that the building that we were meeting in plays host to a pack of these tiny bats. Not only that, but what we have here is a maternity colony! There are eleven or twelve adult female Tricolored Bats in the scrum; the grayer, smaller bats are recently born offspring a week or so of age.

Sorry for the less than stellar image, but I was unwilling to shoot bright flash into their alcove, which would have made for a crisper photo.

However, one of the bats was isolated from the community and down much lower on the wall. It may have been slightly dehydrated, or maybe it just set down in the wrong place come dawn. Whatever the case, it was far more visible than the others. Nonetheless, we kept a respectable distance, and kept an eye on her, as she was in an area with regular people traffic. Eventually the bat did make her way to a much more sheltered and hidden nook in the wall.

Tricolored Bats were formerly known as Eastern Pipistrelles, and they are the smallest of Ohio's regularly occurring bat species. A big one might weigh 10 grams; a dinky one maybe 4-5 grams. To me, they resemble little golden mice with wings.

Tricolored Bats probably use trees and other structures a lot for warm weather roosts, but in winter they duck deep into caves to hibernate. And that habit, unfortunately, is proving to be their downfall, along with other cave-dwelling bat species.

In 2006, a strange malady affecting bats was noted in a New York State cave, and eventually branded as White-nose Syndrome, which is caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans. It is suspected the fungus, which is native to Europe, was transported to the cave by a spelunker(s) who had recently been caving in Europe. Infected bats show whitish fungal crusting on their faces, hence the name.

The disease spread rapidly, and today has been recorded in 22 states and 5 Canadian provinces. WNS fungus, which thrives in damp cool places such as caves and mines, has had disastrous impacts on cave-dwelling bats such as the Tricolored Bat. In some cases, 95% of an impacted colony can be wiped out - worst case scenarios, complete mortality - and to date millions of bats have perished. Ironically, as is the case with so many introduced pests, the fungus apparently has no discernible impact on bats in its native range.

Bats play an incredibly important role in our ecosystems, especially forested areas in this part of the world. Collectively, they harvest untold millions of insects on their nocturnal forays, and are estimated to provide billions of dollars in pest control value annually in North America.

Look! A tiny foot is extended from underneath Mrs. Tricolored Bat! Our bat is concealing a week or two old baby. For a few weeks, the juvenile bats are closely guarded by the mothers, who feed them milk. Mother bats enwrap the babies with their wings and shelter them during the day, and can even fly with baby on board. Come August, this baby bat and the others should be free-flying.

This colony of bats has been returning to this exact spot and breeding for nineteen years. Our escort and source of information about these Tricolored Bats was Kim Baker, ranger and interpretative guide with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Kim and her colleagues have kept close tabs on these bats for years, and take pains to protect the colony. That's undoubtedly why they have been returning here for so long, even though their home is an artificial structure.

As Tricolored Bats are one of the species effected by White-nose Syndrome, Kim and company cross their fingers and hope for the best each spring, when the bats are slated to return. So far, so good, and their numbers have remained fairly constant. Let's hope this colony of bats manages to dodge the White-nose Syndrome bullet.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A gallery of moths, from Mothapalooza

The last weekend in June saw the epic Mothapalooza conference take over Burr Oak State Park's lodge with 150 avid moth-ers. A definite highlight was the nocturnal field trips. Both Friday and Saturday night involved heavy duty mothing, with trips departing shortly after nightfall, and many attendees did not return until 2 or 3 am.

We had five mothing stations (illuminated sheets) scattered about, all within a few miles of the lodge. Each of the stations recorded lots of moths, but Diane Platco Brooks' Brookside Haven property was the standout. She kindly allowed dozens and dozens of people to invade her property each night, and swarm excitedly around the sheets ogling all manner of cool moths. Pretty awesome.

Following is a gallery of select moths that we recorded during Mothapalooza. Many of these photos were made at Diane's place. This is but a sampling; Mothapaloozians recorded many, many more species than what I have shown here.

Banded Tussock Moth, Halysidota tessellaris. This was one of the most common species at the sheets. Note the cream and aqua racing stripes adorning the thorax.

A "life moth" for me, and many others, the Basswood Leafroller, Pantographa limata.

Nearly everyone knows this species' caterpillar, the Woolly-worm, purported larval forecaster of winter's severity. This is what Woolly-bears grow up to be - the Isabella Tiger Moth, Pyrrharctia isabella.

An Eastern Tentworm, Malacosoma americanum, a rather handsome little moth, if you ask me. Its caterpillars are also far better known than the adult moth. They make the messy silken bags, mostly in cherry trees, that are so conspicuous in spring and early summer.

We caught this Fall Webworm Moth, Hyphantria cunea, in the act of carpet bombing a leaf with her eggs. This is the species that makes the big messy silken tents in a variety of trees in late summer and fall. There's a good reason that she, and most other moths, lay so many eggs. The mortality rate of the caterpillars is extremely high, as many predators hunt them and eat them.

This is a Grape Plume Moth, Geina periscelidactylus (the name is bigger than the moth). Plume moths are very distinctive when at rest due to the cross-like posture of the animal.

Stunning in hues of burnt orange and scarlet is this Painted Lichen Moth, Hypoprepia fucosa. The caterpillars feed on lichens, hence the name.

Extraordinarily tiny and easily overlooked are the grass-veneers, but they are always worthy of close inspection. This is a Pasture Grass-veneer, Crambus saltuellus.
My friends David and Laura Hughes refer to the Caloptilia moths as "push-up moths", and it's easy to see why the name fits. This is a Sassafras Caloptilia Moth, Caloptilia sassafrasella.

I am partial to the Datana moths, in spite of the fact that identifying them is not always straightforward. I believe this is the Spotted Datana, Datana perspicua.Note its flat fuzzy orange face - quite odd, indeed.

The Beggar, Eubapha mendica, is a subtle beauty; its pale cream coloration is difficult to accurately capture in photographs.

Looking a bit surly is this Unspotted Looper, Allagrapha aerea. Maybe it's because he has humps on his back and a rhinoceros' horn. Even an artistic madman deep in the throes of a psilocybin mushroom trip couldn't create these sorts of creatures.

In spite of being a bit tattered and faded, this Zebra Conchylodes, Conchylodes ovulalis, is still an extraordinary animal. I'll look forward to finding and photographing a brand new, totally fresh one someday.

We are already scheming to make Mothapalooza III better than ever, and hope to square the venue and dates within the nest few weeks. You'll definitely want to get tickets.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Hummingbird clearwing moths

I didn't let much grass grow under my feet this weekend. Saturday, it was off to Caesar Creek Lake in southwest Ohio, where I met up with Ned Keller, Kathy McDonald, and Debi Wolterman to sort out last minute details for next weekend's butterfly workshop. The next day, it was off to see some of the coolest natural areas in Geauga County, then from there directly to Tuscarawas County where I joined in on some interesting moth-ing last night. Rolled back into Columbus about 6:30 this morning...

Of course, I had the camera in tow and was able to make a few images here and there. This is one of the prairie meadows at Caesar Creek, where we'll be taking field trips next Saturday as part of the aforementioned butterfly workshop. We saw plenty of interesting critters in this field, and other similar habitats. By the way, this image was taken with my iPhone 5S, which has a remarkable built-in camera (and video function). I often use it to document habitats, people, and places.

Of particular interest were some cooperative hummingbird moths. This is the species that you're most likely to encounter in Ohio, the hummingbird clearwing, Hemaris thysbe. It, and the other Hemaris moths are day-flying sphinx moths, and can be quite conspicuous as they take nectar at flowers. They're fairly tame, but that doesn't necessarily equate to easy photo ops.

As with real hummingbirds, these moths are quick and darty, and beat their wings at incredible speed. To freeze the action, more or less, one must use an extremely fast shutter speed. I made this image and the next with my Canon 5D Mark III at ISO 250, no flash, f/3.2, and a shutter speed of 1/4000. Even though I probably got some technically better images showing the entire animal in sharper focus, I like this one, as it illustrates the incessant speed of the moth as it moves around the flowers. Just remember to always focus on the eye - if that feature is sharp the rest of the image will usually fall into place.

This is our other regularly occurring "hummingbird moth" in the genus Hemaris, the snowberry clearwing, H. diffinis. I don't see this one as often as the previous species, and was pleased to encounter both in short order on the same day. Note how much blacker this species is, even its legs.

All camera settings were the same for this shot as the previous, except I bumped up the shutter speed to 1/5000. Even that wasn't enough to fully arrest the movement of the wings, but the body of the insect is more or less tack sharp. For this shot, I made a conscious effort to shoot the animal from the side, so as to get better clarity of focus throughout its body. Setting up on feeding clearwing moths is made easier by their habit of systematically circling the flower heads of the wild bergamot, Monarda fistulosa, upon which they love to feed. The photographer can just kneel by the flower, and wait for the moth to work its way around and into good position for photos.