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Showing posts from August, 2011

Monarch cats

While on a trip into a remote part of Hocking County today, we came across a patch of common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, that was loaded with monarch butterfly caterpillars. It was necessary to stop and admire the colorful little larvae, and make a few photos. I suppose monarch cats are one of the best known and most familiar of the some 2,500 species of caterpillars that ply their trade in Ohio.

As is typical, further inspection of the milkweed foliage revealed other tubular units hiding here and there. Monarch caterpillars are very host-specific, snacking only on plants in the Asclepiadaceae, or milkweed family, with occasional forays onto very closely related dogbane plants. Milkweeds are pretty nasty when it comes to edibility and you'll not want to garnish your salads with the stuff. The thick white sap which flows freely if you cut or a bruise a plant, is loaded with cardiac glycosides. You or I would get very sick if we ate  this stuff, but the caterpillars have evolved an …

The Great Borer Expedition II

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while may recall my fascination with a certain beetle that we call the "amorpha borer", Megacyllene decora. I first laid eyes on the bug three summers ago, and instantly became fascinated with the gorgeous insect. I was with some topnotch field people, and none of us knew what it was in spite of the animal's extremely showy and distinctive appearance.
In an effort to learn more about the beetle, we organized The Great Borer Expedition I, last summer. Success came our way, and we found two of the beetles. But only two, and that was after several hours of searching appropriate habitat.
Flash forward to the banks of the Ohio River between Portsmouth and Cincinnati, and The Great Borer Expedition II, which took place last Sunday. Eight hardcore beetle enthusiasts gathered near what we now know to be Ground Zero for Ohio amorpha borer sightings, briefings were had, and out we set.

We believe that this beetle is rather rare in Ohio, …

King of the wasps

I was once again fortunate to be able to attend another excellent Advanced Naturalist Workshop at the Edge of Appalachia preserve in Adams County. My sincere thanks to Chris Bedel and Mark Zloba of the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History for letting me audit the Saturday portion. I don't know how these guys do it, but they consistently bring in the top experts in the country to teach about various facets of natural history. Be sure to attend one of these workshops next year.
Last weekend's subject was the wide and often wacky world of wasps, and the instructor was none other than Eric Eaton.
These workshops combine lots of field work with classroom lectures, just as any course on natural history should. That's Eric, 2nd from left and facing away from the camera with the hat on. Brian, far right with net, would win Olympic gold if there were a contest for bagging fast-moving insects.

Eric Eaton is the principal author of the acclaimed Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North A…

Black Vultures

Looking like attendees at an undertaker's convention, a hex of Black Vultures adorns an abandoned building in southern Ohio. I took this shot yesterday, in Adams County along the Ohio River. This species is not common and widespread in Ohio, which is at the (for now) northern limits of the black vulture's range. There are a smattering of hotspots for Black Vultures in the state, and Adams County, especially in the vicinity of Ohio Brush Creek, is one of them.

But Black Vultures are expanding, and overshoot migrants turn up well north of the normal range with increasing frequency, and their numbers seem to be increasing in traditional strongholds.

One still sees FAR more Turkey Vultures, and I took this shot not far from where the Black Vultures were perched. These are all Turkeys. Occasionally Black Vultures will mix in these flocks, but for the most part the two species remain rather separated in their habits.

Black Vultures become increasingly abundant as one moves southward,…

Spun Glass Slug

The following animal ranks high on the list of utterly bizarre creatures, and one-ups even all of the caterpillian oddities that I assembled in THIS POST. Our strange beast comes courtesy of John Howard, who is an accomplished caterpillar hunter. It was high on his wish list of hoped for finds, and he finally scored a few days ago in Highland County (birthplace of Johnny Paycheck). Thanks to John - Howard, not Paycheck - for sharing these photos.
Photo: John Howard
Appearing crystalline and utterly unreal, this spun glass slug caterpillar, Isochaetes beutenmuelleri, looks like something created by Swarovski rather than a living, crawling caterpillar. We can see right through its feathery appendages, and it appears to have balls of molten frosted glass attached to its dorsal (top) surface.

In marked contrast to this beautiful - at least to my eyes - caterpillar, the adult is a rather Plain Jane little brown moth - certainly nowhere near as extravagant as its fascinating larva.

Photo: Joh…


On a recent trip around Lake Erie's Sandusky Bay, I came across a nice colony of one of our most handsome mints, the obedient-plant, Physostegia virginiana. It was growing in a low-lying meadow, and the early buds of Canada goldenrod, Solidago canadensis, are beginning to turn the backdrop field an amber color. Black-horned tree crickets and other of the Orthoptera were in full song, making for a classic late summer scene.

Few of our native plants look better than obedient-plant. Its copiously flowered spires can reach three feet or more in height, and most people would find the color of the blooms appealing. It's also not very common, so encountering a population is always a treat.

The curious name stems from the "obedience" of the flower. The calyx is attached to the rachis, or main stem, in such a way that the flowers can be swiveled as if on a groove. Take a finger and push the blossoms from one side of the stem to the other, and there they'll stay, obediently …

Some very cool cats

We are about at the acme of caterpillar abundance and diversity. The winged creatures - butterflies and moths - that produce these wriggling bags of goo as ACT II of their four-pronged life cycle (egg, caterpillar, cocoon/chrysalis, moth/butterfly) are but the most obvious and often very ephemeral stages of an incredibly important group of animals. Caterpillars are by far the most numerous herbivores in the landscape, and without them there would be utter ecological collapse. Most of our songbirds would vanish, many other animals would disappear, plants would run amok, and many of the products that we depend upon in our daily lives would vanish as well.
Get rid of caterpillars, and it probably wouldn't be long before we'd go down the tubes as well.
In my wanderings of the last few weeks, I've had the good fortune to cross paths with some of our coolest cats. Ironically, in most cases the adult moths that most of these will become if all goes well are obscure little brown job…

Wasp scores caterpillar

While on a field excursion last Saturday in Adams County, I noticed this thread-waisted wasp carefully searching the leaf litter of the forest floor. My initial hunch was that it was one of the spider-hunting species, and by the way it was behaving I figured it was on the trail of a victim. Even though such dramas play out countless times each day, anywhere that decent habitat exists, one doesn't often get to witness a hunt such as this. So, we quietly settled in to watch, and I made a series of photos.

Later, we determined the species of the wasp: Eremnophila aureonotata. I haven't found a species specific common name, other than thread-waisted wasp, and there are many of those.

Our hunch was correct, although it was a caterpillar and not a spider that was in the wasp's sights. After a few minutes of circling and seemingly homing in on a certain spot, the wasp suddenly pounced and in the blink of an eye seized this luckless caterpillar and began tugging it from a niche in …

Black Witch in Ohio!

Photo: Rusty Shuffelton
Dave and Rusty Shuffelton made an extraordinary find back on August 13, when they entered Dave's Shelby County garage and discovered a female black witch, Ascalapha odorata. This enormous tropical species strays far to the north with regularity, but nonetheless Ohio records are few and far between. I don't think they are found here annually, or at least not that I hear of. Records are always noteworthy, and if you find one I'd love to hear about it.

This record illustrates the utility of cell/smart phones, nearly all of which seem to have cameras included these days. That's what Rusty used to document this record.

Last September, Greg Raterman turned up a black witch in Pickaway County, and I wrote about these interesting moths in more detail in that post. CLICK HERE if you would like to peruse that piece.

Thanks to Dave and Rusty for documenting and sharing this record.

Songs of Insects workshop

The group heads into the bush during a field trip associated with this weekend's Singing Insects Workshop at the Edge of Appalachia preserve in Adams County. This class was one of a series of Advanced Naturalist Workshops organized by the Cincinnati Museum and taught at the Eulett Center.

Topflight experts are brought in to teach these weekend long courses, and this weekend the instructor was Wil Hershberger. Wil is an authority on the Orthoptera, our "singing" insects and that was the focus of this seminar. I really appreciate Chris Bedel and Mark Zloba of the Cinci Museum allowing me to attend for one day; that's all that time would permit. So, off I went to Adams County yesterday to learn from Wil and as expected it was a great experience.

This book created a landslide of interest in singing insects: crickets, katydids, cicadas, etc. Released in 2007, the Songs of Insects is now in its third printing and has served as the vehicle by which many thousands of people h…