Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Some late season bugs

My expeditions afield tend to produce far more images than I could ever share here. Normally, I have a specific subject or theme for posts, and that sometimes precludes using photos that I think are interesting, but fall outside of one of my writing topics.

So here is a hodgepodge of various insect images, all taken in the last week or so. All of the subjects were found in central or southern Ohio.

A Curve-tailed Bush Katydid, Scudderia curvicauda, looks into the camera. These whimsical-looking beasts make for great photography subjects. Note the katydid's ears - those dark oval pits just below the knees on the forelegs.

TIP: Go out at night, when they are active and singing, for the best images.

A Black-waved Flannel Moth caterpillar, Lagoa crispata, caught in the act of molting. It has nearly shed the skin of the penultimate instar, which is the white fluffy cottonlike mass. The caterpillar is now brown and resembles a turtle covered with shag carpeting. Most of our caterpillars go through five growth stages, each termed an instar. In some species, such as this one, the appearance between instars is quite different. This is the last stage - next stop, cocoon.

A female Common Green Darner, Anax junius, caught while resting late at night. She was one of several that we found on this evening, dangling from tree branches. Green Darners are highly migratory and it may be that a migratory swarm put down in this area for the night.

One to watch for on the goldenrods this time of year, the beautiful Locust Borer, Megacyllene robiniae. These longhorned beetles spend much of their life cycle as larvae, feeding internally on the tissues of Black Locust trees. For an all too brief period in fall, adults emerge and can be found taking nectar and pollen from flowers.

Fortunately for me, it was a chilly night when I shot this insect, which had flown into lights at a moth sheet. It is the Bald-faced Hornet, Dolichovespula maculata, and this individual was too cold to let me have it. Their sting packs a whallop. I know this firsthand, having been stung while photographing one of the football-sized paper nests. Check the mandibles - Bald-faced Hornets capture and eat other insects, sometimes including yellowjackets.

A tubular work of art indeed, an Orange-striped Oakworm, Anisota senatoria, makes mincemeat of an American Beech leaf. Sometimes there are noticeable population spikes in this species, and scores of the caterpillars can be found on a single tree.

This funny-looking little moth was by my porch light tonight. It's the Lesser Grapevine Looper, Eulithis diversilineata, which can be quite common in urban and suburban locales. It is one of many species of moths whose caterpillars are wedded entirely to wild grape and Virginia Creeper.

A brown form of the Round-tipped Conehead, Neoconocephalus retusus. These large katydids are normally green, but this form crops up from time to time, and it blends especially well with the senescing foliage of late autumn. Round-tipped Coneheads create a very loud buzzing crackle, which is a common sound along roadsides and in fields. Listen while you can - the singing insects will largely vanish with the first frosts of late fall.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Ground Skink, Scincella lateralis

A Ground Skink, Scincella lateralis, (sometimes called the Little Brown Skink) rests, quite appropriately, on the ground.

While in Adams County two weekends ago, Mark Zloba of the Cincinnati Museum Center and an employee at the Edge of Appalachia Preserve, mentioned an area where he always sees Ground Skinks. Would I be interested in seeing them? You betcha! Everyone has their nemesis creatures - animals that just seem to elude one, no matter how hard you try. Well, this skink was my nemesis Ohio lizard. I can't say that I really knocked myself out looking for one, but in year's past I had visited a number of sites where they were reported, sometimes with the express purpose of finding one, and had always failed.

One of the little skinks peeks shyly over a log. We saw several, and it was great to finally make the reptile's acquaintance in real life. One can only learn so much from books and literature, and the Internet - there is no substitute for seeing the real McCoy and observing how the animal acts, and interacts with its environment.

Ground Skinks are very limited in their Ohio distribution. Insofar as I know, they have only been reported from the southernmost counties of Adams, Hocking, Scioto, and Vinton. I'm not sure if they are still present in Hocking County, and where they do occur they tend to be localized. This species is listed as a Species of Concern by the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

Ground Skinks are tiny; a large one doesn't even reach six inches in length. The ones that we saw were probably only three or four inches. Under close inspection, they proved to be exquisite animals. The rich coppery-brown tones of the head blend into a grayish brown back, and a neat black pinstripe traverses the skink's side.

These reptiles spend much of their time furtively hunting small game among the leaf litter. When not on the hunt, they hide under logs or other refuges. We found our first two out in the open, apparently foraging. One or two others were caught hiding under metal tins on the ground. I found them rather confiding and easy to approach and work with.

As this map depicts, the Ground Skink is a southerner reaching its northern limits in southern Ohio. Due to its limited occurrence here, it is a reptile that one is unlikely to stumble into. As with all rare/local snakes, lizards, and turtles, it's best to not broadcast the locations of populations. There is another well known Ground Skink site in Shawnee State Forest. I once stopped there, mostly to photograph some plants that occur at the same locale. It looked like a bomb blast had gone off. Apparently some "herpers" (short for herpetologists/reptile enthusiasts) had just been there seeking the skinks. They had flipped nearly all of the big rocks, but didn't replace anything how they had found it. Such disturbance cannot be good for the skinks (or other reptiles), and unfortunately such behavior does occur from time to time.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The lost Bird Project film, and discussion

September 1 marked the centennial of the passing of the very last Passenger Pigeon, Martha. Her death spelled the end for a species once so plentiful that no one who lived at the peak of the Passenger's Pigeons' abundance could ever have imagined that it would disappear, completely and utterly, and entirely due to the actions of people. There are many lessons to be learned from this tragic tale, and Martha and her kind should not be forgotten.

The Grange Insurance Audubon Center is hosting a showing of the film The Lost Bird Project, followed by a panel discussion about the pigeon, conservation, extinction and whatever topics arise. It's free, and all are welcome. Details below:

The Lost Bird Project
Grange Insurance Audubon Center
Wednesday September 17, 2014
7:00 – 9:00 pm

The film The Lost Bird Project will be shown. It chronicles the memorial  sculptures that artist Todd McGrain created to remember and honor the lost birds: the Labrador Duck, the Great Auk, the Heath Hen, the Carolina Parakeet and the Passenger Pigeon. Friends set out to find the perfect place to permanently house the sculptures. As the Grange Insurance Audubon Center was just being completed and the team was trying to find a place near where the last wild passenger pigeon was shot, and the last captive Passenger Pigeon died it seemed the Center was the perfect place. Come and enjoy this beautiful sculpture and watch the film. There will be a panel discussion immediately following the film featuring, Jim McCormac from ODNR, Barb Revard from the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and President of the Columbus Audubon Chapter and Marnie Urso from the National Audubon Society.

Free and open to the public. No reservation required. Donations appreciated.
505 W. Whittier St. Cols OH 43215

505 W. Whittier St.
Columbus, Ohio 43215
Direct Line – 614-545-5486
Center Main Number- 614-545-5475
Fax – 614-545-5489


Monday, September 8, 2014

The amazing Amorpha Borer strikes again!

A "weedy" unkempt bank of the mighty Ohio River, in Adams County, Ohio. That's Kentucky on the far side. I was down in the hill country for the past four days, much of which was spent attending a fabulous workshop on the singing insects (Orthoptera), taught by Wil Hershberger and Lisa Rainsong. More on that later.

We had some time on either end of the workshop to do some exploring, and we didn't let any grass grow under our feet. Some amazing finds were made, including the animal featured in this post. John Howard and I were riding together, and when we pulled into this site and saw the habitat, one animal was on our minds: the world's greatest beetle, the amazing Amorpha Borer!

Our party fanned out onto the riverbank and began the hunt, and it wasn't long before a mighty shout went up from Laura Hughes - she had spotted an Amorpha Borer, Megacyllene decora! We rushed to the spot, and marveled over the tangerine and black beast as it ran roughshod over the flowers of Late-flowering Thoroughwort, Eupatorium serotinum. Soon Laura saw another, and before we left a third beetle had been tallied. That was a record for us. John and I, especially, have searched for these beetles for at least six or seven years, and the best we had ever done was two in a day. After stopping at another site in Scioto County, where we added two additional beetles, our day's total came to an incredible five (5) Amorpha Borers.

Laura quickly learned that these large brutish beetles are not to be trifled with. She deftly snagged one with her bare hands, and received a blood-inducing nip in the process.

The jaws of the Amorpha Borer are large and powerful, as is the case with many longhorned beetles.

The Amorpha Borer is a striking insect, and appears to be a hornet mimic. Note the bold black and yellow banding. In flight, especially, they really do look like a yellowjacket or some such stinging insect.

From our experience, and we have spent a fair bit of time seeking this beetle, the Amorpha Borer is rare and local. It does not seem to range away from the banks of the Ohio River (in Ohio), and its flight period seems to be from August into September. We have never found them far from their host plant, which is False Indigo, Amorpha fruticosa. The beetle larvae feed internally on the stems of these plants. When the adults do emerge, they seek nectar avidly, but always (?) in close proximity to the host plants. A decided favorite is the aforementioned Late-flowering Thoroughwort, but we have also found beetles on goldenrods.

So those are the ingredients for finding Amorpha Borers in Ohio: an overgrown bank of the Ohio River, plenty of False Indigo, and blooming thoroughworts and goldenrods.

As befits their good looks, the beetles are always meticulously groomed.This one is running one of its antennae through its mouthparts, to keep everything clean and in good working order.

Once the beetle had completed the task of antenna-scrubbing, it set about washing its feet. One never knows when the paparazzi might arrive on the scene, I suppose.

In order to better capture the beetle's true magnificence, we temporarily detained one and shot images on foliage affixed to that picnic table. John Howard (left) assists David Hughes (seated), while Laura Hughes (left) and Lisa Rainsong look on. Wendy Partridge is in the backdrop, and Wil Hershberger was off looking at something elsewhere.

Based on our searches, John and I believe that Megacyllene decora is probably an uncommon and local, if not downright rare, beetle in Ohio. We would love to learn of other populations, but so far no one has alerted us to any. A check of the massive Ohio State University insect collection (courtesy of George Keeney) revealed no specimens, either. Such a large flashy beetle would surely draw the attention of collectors, and if they were at all plentiful, I suspect specimens would reside in OSU's collection.

Perhaps the Amorpha Borer deserves to be state-listed as threatened or endangered.


Friday, September 5, 2014

Reddish Egret in Ohio!

Major kudos to Steve Landes! He found an incredibly rare bird (for Ohio) last Wednesday, and performed in a highly efficient manner in regards to getting word out. Within a half hour or so, just about everyone in Ohio's birding community knew about the Reddish Egret that Steve had found.

Ground zero for the egret - the City of Columbus' new upground reservoir in northwestern Delaware County, about 40 minutes northwest of Columbus. The egret has been frequenting shallow ponds on the reservoir's north side - I marked the spot where I saw it late Wednesday afternoon. I don't think the presence of the massive reservoir is coincidental. The bird, as it winged over, likely was attracted to the large water feature, and then dropped in to hunt in the adjacent shallow wetlands.

Photo: Steve Landes

I heard the initial report while in my office and unable to escape. Immediately after work, I rushed home, grabbed some gear, and headed up to the egret. As fortune would have it, Steve Landes was there. In my lust to see the Reddish Egret, I ran afield with only the big lens bolted to the Canon, so Steve was kind enough to share this iPhone picture of the general habitat. Nothing unusual, but the waters hosted plenty of fish and other aquatic prey.

The Reddish Egret, in a rare moment of repose. Steve's bird is a white morph, and a subadult. Apparently, at least in U.S. populations, white morphs comprise less than ten percent of the population. More typical dark morphs are slaty blue-gray with reddish-maroon neck and head. Of course, this bird may have come from points south of the U.S. There are thought to be less than 2,000 pairs in the United States, mostly along the Gulf Coast of Texas. But the species ranges south through Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Like many other species of southern herons, Reddish Egrets can engage in northward post-breeding dispersal. Nonetheless, they seldom stray from coastal saltwater habitats, so to have one in Ohio is remarkable.

This was a brilliant find. It would have been quite easy to dismiss the bird, especially from a distance, as a juvenile Little Blue Heron, or perhaps a Snowy Egret, without taking a good look. No one would probably be thinking about Reddish Egret. But Steve did stop for a close study, and nailed it.

One clue for Reddish Egret is its feeding tactics. The animals often rush manically through the shallows, chasing and lunging after prey. Mantling the water with outstretched wings is a common practice - the sudden appearance of shade probably serves to spook fish, which the heron then darts after.

I apologize for the less than stellar images, but these were shot from afar in fading light. I know others have much better images, and if someone sends me one, I'll post it. But at least we now have images of this species in Ohio. There was a previous report, but that bird was never photographed and was a single observer sighting. I don't doubt it, but such reports should ordinarily fall into the hypothetical category. I'd say that even if it was my own sighting. First state records should require indisputable evidence. But evidence abounds in this case.

A short video that shows the frenetic feeding behavior of the Reddish Egret.

As darkness settled in, the egret arose and flew south over the reservoir. It returned the following day (Thursday) and has now been seen by scores of birders. I write this early on Friday morning, and have not yet heard of a report from today.

Congratulations and thanks to Steve Landes for the avian find of 2014. For the record, this is species #372 for my Ohio list. New state birds are few and far between these days. Ironically, my biggest Ohio nemesis species is the Tricolored Heron. We get a few of those every year. I'd not have thought that I would add Reddish Egret before that one.


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Harris's Three-spot caterpillar, a weird animal indeed

An inquisitive group examines a sapling Blue Ash, Fraxinus quadrangulata, at the Fernald Preserve in Hamilton County, Ohio. A number of us were there to look for moths, singing insects, caterpillars and whatever after dark last Saturday night. We scored big in the caterpillar department.

The aforementioned ash played host to a very special species of caterpillar; one of the Holy Grails among the tubular crowd. In fact, three of the caterpillars were present! It was a species that I had sought - as much as one can knowingly seek such things - since I learned of its existence. As with many finds, there was a significant amount of luck and serendipity involved, but to our credit, we were out after dark and actively seeking caterpillars, so we did work for it. I saw some fresh leaf damage on the ash, went in for a closer look, and Voila! I think you'll see why we thought this find was so cool. Read on...

A Harris's Three-spot caterpillar, Harrisimemna trisignata! The caterpillar world is full of weird creatures, but perhaps none are weirder than this one. It resembles a combination of Yak, fresh bird droppings, and some spider eyes stenciled on for good measure. Oh, and those strange bits of debris caught up on the long white hairs on its head. That's not just random bad grooming - the trash is there for a reason, as we shall see.

David Wagner, in his excellent guide, the Caterpillars of Eastern North America, states this about his first encounter with a Harris's Three-spot: "When my son Ryan first pointed out a Harris's Three-spot caterpillar to me, I dismissed the animal as a spider, even after he urged a second look."

I can easily see how one might do that, in the field and in the gloom of night. Had I not already been familiar with the animal from studies, and aware of what to look for, I may well have dismissed it as something else as well.

Now, back to the trash bits adorning the caterpillar's hairs. Those are the head capsules that were shucked during previous molts (caterpillars molt and shed their skins multiple times before reaching maturity). Somehow, the hard head capsules adhere tightly to the hairs, and the caterpillar uses them as flails. If a potential enemy such as a parasitoid fly or wasp, or even a small songbird, investigates the caterpillar, it will lash out with the hair-born head capsules. Its strikes occur with incredible rapidity and amazing accuracy, and would surely repel many would-be predators.

To make these photos, we transported the caterpillar into the Fernald Visitor Center (amazing building!) where we could create better images. The caterpillar was later taken back to the same tree upon which we captured it. As we photographed it, a tiny fly or wasp alighted on the leaf stem the caterpillar was on. I'm not sure what it was, but it did seem interested in the caterpillar. As soon as the insect lit nearby, the caterpillar flailed it away. It was a quite remarkable performance and I still am mystified how the cat even knew the other insect was there.

We found that we could easily stimulate the caterpillar to work its flails with a light touch of a finger. This video shows the animal in action.

To top it all off, the bizarre caterpillar tunnels into wood and pupates there. If all goes well for the caterpillar, it will morph into an equally amazing moth. An adult Harris's Three-spot is sure to cause a stir when it is found, as it is one of the more beautiful species in our Lepidopteran fauna. As with the caterpillar, I had been on the hunt for one of the moths for many years, and it wasn't until last June that I finally saw one. The moth in the photo was photographed at the massive Edge of Appalachia Preserve in Adams County, a region that probably harbors one of the richest diversity and abundance of moths in eastern North America.

Seen down low and on its level, the Harris's Three-spot is truly odd-looking, but so is every phase of its life cycle. It looks to be wearing goggles, and has a very spiderish look to it.

Maybe, somewhere, Harris's Three-spot caterpillars and moths are commonplace and people in that magical land tire of them. But insofar as I know, it is a rarity and a thrill to encounter.

Thanks to Sue Walpole, Penny Borgman, and Brian Wulker of the Fernald Preserve for hosting our visit, and allowing our after-hours explorations of the grounds.


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Red-footed Cannibal Fly!

The Slender Ladies'-tresses, Spiranthes lacera, is one of our smallest orchid species, but always a star. Yesterday, I led a group on a trip to explore some interesting natural areas in southeastern Ohio. One of our stops was a very interesting oak barrens that is regularly subjected to controlled burns. Plant life in this locale is spectacular, and includes one of the rarest plants in Ohio. I hope to write more about that species soon. On the hike back to see the rarity, we stopped to admire this diminutive ladies'-tress, which was a "life" plant for most of the group.

But a fly, of all things, ended up stealing the show. Lisa Brohl spotted a large, strange-looking insect and drew my attention to it. Yes! Even from afar, it was instantly identifiable as the gargantuan, death-dealing Red-footed Cannibal Fly, Promachus hinei. Those of us who were bringing up the rear of the group (I'm always last!) were treated to the spectacle of one of our most ferocious insects.

We move in...

The cannibal fly was semi-cooperative, and after a bit of sneaking about, we were able to draw quite near. It was preoccupied. The animal had snared a large bumblebee, and has it in its clutches. Now that's tough! Very little is safe around a Red-footed Cannibal Fly. They, obviously, are not even deterred by insects that can give a nasty sting. This isn't the first time I've seen one with a bumblebee, either.

A cannibal fly on the hunt parks itself a leaf or branch with a good view of the surrounding landscape. When an appropriate victim - usually a large insect - flies into view, the cannibal fly launches itself and proceeds apace towards the prey. There is nothing particularly deft or agile about the operation. Accompanied by a loud buzzing drone, the fly hurtles clumsily but rapidly at the victim, and rams it in midair. Once the prey is met, the cannibal fly enfolds it with powerful spine-covered legs; an entomological iron maiden from which there is no escape.

The coup de grace is then administered. The fly's proboscis is a sturdy tube much like a hypodermic syringe, and it is rammed deeply into the doomed victim. Acidlike substances are piped in, which aid in dissolving the innards, and the liquefied goop is then sucked back out leaving little more than a dried husk. After a well deserved rest, the cannibal fly prepares for the next hunt.

This insect might be thought of as the Peregrine Falcon of the insect world. They are high-end predators, and from my experience are not very common. I see but a few each year, and when I do, the cannibal fly is invariably in some high quality habitat such as a prairie remnant or other open habitat of rich botanical diversity. Lots of native plant diversity breeds lots of pollinating insects, which in turn spawn a fabulous assemblage of predators, and of this latter group, the Red-footed Cannibal Fly is hard to top.