Monday, September 29, 2014

Falcons of the New River Gorge bridge

The New River Gorge Bridge, a span of incredible dimensions. It crosses the New River at Fayetteville, West Virginia, and is perhaps best known for the annual Bridge Day festival. But the bridge is a festival of engineering in its own right. When completed in 1977, it was the world's longest single span arch bridge at 3,030 feet. It's since been bested by a few other bridges, but no matter - the thing is still massive in every way.

I've been coming to this area every spring for at least eight years to participate in the New River Birding & Nature Festival. SIDEBAR: If you want to have a lot of fun, see scads of birds, AND lots of other biodiversity, CHECK OUT THIS FESTIVAL.

The bridge is a point of fascination to nearly everyone who comes here, and it was to me as well. When a company called Bridge Walk opened their doors four years ago, offering people the opportunity to traverse the span on a narrow catwalk under the roadway, I couldn't wait to do it. Well, it took until last weekend to finally knock this one off my bucket list, and it was worth the wait. I connected with my friend and festival co-organizer Rachel Davis, hooked up with the nice people at Bridge Walk, and away we went.

Should you dare to undertake the Bridge Walk, this will be your path. A narrow catwalk about two feet wide is located about fifteen feet under the bridge's road deck. For safety's sake, all walkers are connected via safety cables to overhead wires. There's never been a mishap, although on occasion a walker decides it might be in their best interest to turn back once they get a ways out under the bridge.

Your narrator stands high over the rushing waters of the New River. About 850 feet high, in fact.

The views from up there are incredible, and they get better as one progresses towards the center of the bridge. Photography is tough, as you're in a well-shaded situation trying to shoot out into bright light. The catwalk allows a great perspective on the amazing engineering that went into the bridge.

If you think walking the catwalk would be daunting, it is an absolute cakewalk compared to what it must have been like to be a steelworker assembling the bridge. Or, one of the inspectors who regularly clambers over every beam to make sure that all is well.

One of my primary goals was to see one of the local Peregrine Falcons that has appropriated the bridge. They began nesting in a nook near the top of the arch, over 800 feet above the river, a few years back. I had seen the falcons several times from the ground FAR below, but thought that it would be awesome to see them up at their level. It was.

A falcon glares at our group from his perch on a beam. The birds are quite use to human interlopers, and are relatively undisturbed by people. Not so with the Rock Pigeons, who, Rachel tells me, have largely abandoned their roosts under the bridge now that Peregrine Falcons are in the house. I can scarcely imagine how cool it must be to be a bird that, at will, can soar hundreds of feet above ground level and hang out on the beams of one of the world's biggest, coolest, tallest bridges. And from its lofty perch, spot a hapless flicker or cuckoo crossing the river far below, drop like a torpedo, and whack the prey in midair.


video

A short video showing one of the falcons dropping from a bridge pillar, and soaring out over the canyon. My wide-angle landscape lens wasn't up to the task of following the bird, but you'll get a brief sense of the viewscape offered from the bridge's catwalk.

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Miscellanea

The beautiful flowers of Stiff Aster, Ionactis linariifolius, are sure to grab the eye. You won't see this one any old place - in Ohio, it is confined to a handful of the southernmost counties. This specimen was photographed in Shawnee State Forest, Scioto County.

I've been far and wide in the week past, all the way from Cleveland, to Youngstown, to the Ohio River. Robust travels and other obligations have kept me from the blog, at least to the extent that I normally contribute. There have been some very cool experiences, with some very cool people, and I hope to share some of those tales eventually. You can believe there are photos of everything.

But for now, I must make do with quickly captioned snapshots of a few items of natural history.

A young Black Kingsnake, Lampropeltis getulis, coils before the camera.The animal was in a riparian woodland along Scioto Brush Creek in Scioto County. For as fierce as these snakes are - they routinely prey on other snakes, including venomous copperheads - they are marshmallows when encountered by people. I temporarily detained the animal, and following a quick and utterly painless nip on my thumb - can't blame the snake, I asked for it! - it settled right down.

Gorgeous and massive by damselfly standards, this Great Spreadwing, Archilestes grandis, dangles from a branch in a wet meadow near Cleveland. The animal attempted a few evasive maneuvers, but eventually settled in and allowed me near.

An oddity in a world of mega-oddities, this is a small caterpillar known as Nason's Slug, Natada nasoni. All of the slug moth caterpillars are ornate and interesting, but I find this species especially fetching. Its stinging spines - those tiny red fascicles - are retractable. When confronted with a potential peril the cat extends them, and woe to the predator that makes contact. A blistering sting will follow. Or so they say. I've never actually handled one, preferring to accept others' word on this one.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

Some random cool Hymenoptera (bees & wasps)

I have covered a lot of ground in recent days, from Cleveland to the Ohio River. Lots of cool stuff has come under the camera's lens, but I've had precious little time to slap any of it up here. So, to partially remedy that situation, here is a hodge-podge of Hymenoptera seen recently. Some of the insects in this Order rank high among our most reviled six-legged creatures, but I like nearly all of them. In spite of some of the stings that I've taken in the line of duty.

A paper wasp in the genus Polistes takes nectar and/or pollen from Gray Goldenrod, Solidago nemoralis. Goldenrods are unbeatable insect attractors in fall. This wasp is one of a number of species that makes small hemispherical paper nests that hang from a stalk. They often build in places where people will wander near, and stings are not uncommon. They hurt, too. We can just ask the artist Sigrid Nielson, who accompanied me on a recent foray. A paper wasp whacked her on the shoulder, and she reports distinctly unpleasant aftershocks.

I had been after this one for a while. It is a pelecinid (pel-ih-see-nid) wasp, Pelecinus polyturator, and they can be hard to approach. Every other one that I had encountered was during the day, and none of them ever allowed an opportunity for a good shot. We found these at night, after plunking ourselves to the ground to set up a shoot of a caterpillar. The flashlight beams drew in two of the pelecinids, and it was fairly simple to set them up for some shots.

Note the long abdomen - this is a female, and she uses that elongate body part to insert eggs into the ground and into beetle larvae. The wasp grub will then consume the host grub.

This, I believe, is a species of braconid wasp, possibly in the genus Atanycolus.Whatever it is, she's got a massive ovipositor. If it is an Atanycolus wasp, she uses that long spikelike ovipositor to auger deep into wood and lay eggs in woodboring beetle larvae.

While the previous wasp was tiny and would be measured in millimeters, this animal is huge and might send people running and screaming. It's a European Hornet, Vespa crabro, happily snacking on the head of a Common Green Darner dragonfly. The rest of the meal lies to the wasp's right, and a Harvestman is also scavenging a meal.

European Hornets are predatory and take lesser insects, but I can't imagine it took out this big dragonfly. I suspect it is opportunistically feeding on the carcass. To me, it looks like one of these would pack a punch - one can be over an inch long - but they apparently are not normally aggressive. I've seen very few of these, but they supposedly are steadily expanding their range (European Hornets were introduced in New York about 150 years ago). This weekend past, I saw two, in widely scattered locales.

Bizarre just doesn't cut it as a descriptor for this thing. One might be forgiven for thinking the waxy undulating mass to be some sort of strange fungus with the ability to glide across leaves. It is the Butternut Woollyworm, Eriocampa juglandis, which is a type of sawfly (the Order Hymenoptera includes ants, bees, wasps, and sawflies).

I was unfamiliar with this species until earlier this year, when John Howard pointed some out. Larval sawflies, at least those that do not sprout waxy filamentous growths, resemble caterpillars and feed on plants in much the same manner. This one was among many that were consuming walnut foliage.

An unadorned Butternut Woollyworm lies naked and curled next to one of its mates in costume. I am unsure of the process by which these sawflies develop their fungal-looking layers, but imagine that the disguise makes them unappealing to would-be predators.

This is one of the leafcutter bees in the genus Megachile, feeding on the disk flowers of Flat-topped Aster, Doellingeria umbellata. Note the pollen granules stuck to the bee; the earmark of a good pollinator. While it is the European Honeybee that garners the lion's share of the press, that introduced species is relatively inconsequential when it comes to the pollination of our native flora. The myriad species of native bees and wasps that have co-evolved with North America's plants are far more important than the honeybee.

LOTS of species of wasps in a number of families are parasitoids. They lay their eggs on or in host insects, and the wasp grub becomes an internal parasite eating its host alive. This behavior normally kills the host before it can complete its life cycle. Caterpillars are extraordinarily common victims.

I was photographing this Tuliptree Beauty inchworm caterpillar, Epimecis hortaria, and was so fixated on making images that I did not notice its unwelcome hitchhiker. A tiny wasp perches atop the cat, and it is undoubtedly up to no good (to wax anthropomorphic). I'm not sure of the family of the wasp - Chalcidae, Braconidae? - but it almost certainly has or will deposit eggs on this caterpillar. If so, the caterpillar's fate is a foregone conclusion, and it won't be a happy ending.

Many times, including several times in the past few days, I have taken macro images of caterpillars, only to spot parasitoid wasps on them while reviewing the photos later. An incredible percentage of caterpillars suffer such fates; some experts believe that as many as 99% of at least some caterpillar species perish due to predators, and wasps are a big part of that food web.

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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.

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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.

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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
614-545-5486

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

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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.

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