Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Caterpillar attacked and killed by predatory fungus

Here's a bizarre and terrible fate. A caterpillar is encased in Metarhizium fungus, which ultimately will kill its host. This cat was still mobile but is not long for this world. The fungus will soon overwhelm it, leaving a hollowed-out husk. This caterpillar was on the abundant native Horseweed (Conyza canadensis), and I was searching it for a beautiful caterpillar known as Speyer's Cucullia, which I've never seen. This cuculiid feeds primarily, if not exclusively, on this plant. The fungal-infected cat is about the right size and shape for Speyer's Cucullia, but the field marks are obliterated by the fungus. The fungus even turns the head capsule and feet a sickly shade of tan. Pickaway County, September 9, 2022.
 

Monday, September 19, 2022

Nature: Hot dog! The hickory horned devil is one giant caterpillar!

A hickory horned devil in a hotdog bun for scale/Jim McCormac

Nature: Hot dog! The hickory horned devil is one giant caterpillar!

Columbus Dispatch
September 18, 2022
NATURE
Jim McCormac

A hidden army reaches a crescendo about this time of year. Its tubular soldiers are largely out of sight and mind, but wage battle with vegetation on an epic scale. Mostly emerging under cover of darkness — the better to avoid threats like hungry songbirds — caterpillars play an enormous but largely unsung role in ecology.

The ranks of caterpillars include scores of spectacular creatures, some seemingly lifted from the works of Dr. Seuss, or Alice in Wonderland. Accompanying this column is a photo of eastern North America’s largest species, the hickory horned devil (Citheronia regalis). It is often likened to a hot dog as a size scale, which is why I placed one in a bun for the photo. The horned devil was released unharmed on a black walnut (a common host plant).

If all goes well for the devil, it will eventually morph into a regal moth, a bat-sized behemoth clad in cinnamon scales punctuated with cream-colored spots. So different are the larva and adult moth that they go by different common names. Such bifurcated nomenclature is not uncommon in the world of moth caterpillars.

Although butterflies are far better known in the Lepidopteran world, it is moths that rule. About 140 species of butterflies have been found in Ohio. Moths crush them in diversity, with at least 2,000 documented species and scores more awaiting discovery. Both butterflies and moths have a four-part life cycle: egg, larva (caterpillar), cocoon (moth) or chrysalis (butterfly), and winged adult.

The caterpillar phase is perhaps the most interesting. Virtually all of our “cats” eat vegetation, and more often than not, a species is tied to a small group of flora, or even one plant. Native plants drive the caterpillar train. Our cats have no co-evolutionary history with nonnative invasive plants and mostly shun them.

Caterpillars are the frontline agents that transform plant tissue into nutritious protein that’s easily assimilated by other animals. They are steaks on legs, preyed upon at epic levels by all manner of predators. In response, moths, especially, engage in carpet-bombing reproduction. Females of some species might lay hundreds of eggs. This is necessary to get some offspring through the predatorial gauntlet and to the reproductive stage.

A highly conspicuous caterpillar consumer group is birds, mostly our songbirds. Without caterpillars to fuel them, many species would quickly vanish. Forests would literally fall silent. The melodies of orioles, tanagers, warblers and others would disappear. Perhaps kings of the caterpillar-eaters are the vireos. Our most common species is the red-eyed vireo, which winters in South America and temporarily occupies eastern North America to exploit the seasonal bounty of caterpillars. About one million red-eyed vireos summer in Ohio, and collectively they eat some 30 million caterpillars daily.

At the recent Mothapalooza sponsored by the Arc of Appalachia, we were fortunate to have the Caterpillar Lab on hand. Founder Sam Jaffe began doing educational programs on caterpillars in 2008, and in 2015 launched the lab, which is based in New Hampshire.

Jaffe and crew enjoy visiting Ohio and have been here numerous times, including several Mothapaloozas. They bring many fascinating specimens and entrance audiences with wee beasts that are all around, but rarely seen. The lab directly contacts about 40,000 people a year, which includes many school visits.

Jaffe and company are pied pipers for caterpillar conservation, and by extension, overall preservation of biodiversity. In addition to educational outreach, the lab does a variety of research, such as the effect of the loss of ash trees on caterpillar species due to the emerald ash borer.

We hope to have the Caterpillar Lab back in Ohio for the next Mothapalooza, which will be July 14-16, 2023, at the Highlands Nature Sanctuary. It’s an event probably quite unlike any other you’ve experienced, and attendees will see legions of interesting moths and caterpillars. Mothapalooza fills quickly, so watch the website for details. Registration will open sometime next spring: https://arcofappalachia.org/Mothapalooza

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

 

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Goldenrod Stowaway Moth, and the time it can take to tell a pictorial story

A field painted gold with the showy inflorescences of Tall Goldenrod (Solidago altissima). Not Canada Goldenrod (S. canadensis), as nearly everyone calls this stuff. The tale of these two look-alike goldenrods will have to await another day, though.

Tall Goldenrod is a conspicuous and highly productive plant of old fields, meadows and other open well-drained habitats. As is typically the case with very common native plants, goldenrods spawn legions of interesting insects that have co-evolved with them, and host scores of others that dine on the goldenrod's abundant nectar and pollen or use the plants in other ways.

This little gem is a Goldenrod Stowaway Moth (Cirrhophanus triangulifera), and it's well-named. While another group of plants in the Sunflower Family (Asteraceae) actually does the heavy lifting in producing this moth, once the Goldenrod Stowaway pops from its cocoon, it's off to the goldenrods. During the day, the beautiful burnt-orange and lemon moth nestles among the flowers of goldenrod, its colors blending well with the myriad tiny flowers. At night, it taps the flowers' nectar as the one in my photo is doing.

I photographed this one on the same species of goldenrod as in the first photo, back on September 7, 2015. The caterpillars of Goldenrod Stowaway are equally cool, and I had wanted to see one for as long as I've been aware of this moth's existence. But, as is often the case, it took quite some time to catch up to the cat.

This is the other botanical ingredient necessary to foster Goldenrod Stowaways: plants in the genus Bidens. I took the above photo just two days ago, and it shows a fine tangle of Northern Tickseed-sunflower (Bidens coronata). At least some Bidens, this species included, are the only food plants for the interesting larvae of the Goldenrod Stowaway. Specialization on a single plant genus is common in the moth world.

There are about a dozen species of Bidens in the Midwest and the minority have showy ray flowers like this one. Most have only discoid flowers - just the little button in the center and no conspicuous yellow rays. I do not know if Goldenrod Stowaway caterpillars eat all Bidens species, but they definitely feed on Northern Tickseed-sunflower.

Bidens are often known as beggar's-ticks and this is why. All of our species have seeds (technically, achenes) that are armed with stiff awns. Because of these awns, the seeds stick to passersby, sometimes in copious quantities. I took this photo of my jacket sleeve after a fall peregrination through a wet meadow a few years ago. Many plants use mammalian dispersal as a migratory tactic, and Bidens do this very well.

Anyway, in a strange twist I was on the phone a few days ago with Chelsea Gottfried, my coauthor on an upcoming book on moths (more on that to come) and asked her to go outside to check on a plant that we used an image of in our book. The Northern Tickseed-sunflower was all around where she was checking, and she noticed the above caterpillars feeding on the flowering heads.

Bingo! The well-camouflaged larva of the Goldenrod Stowaway Moth! That's its head at top and to the left. Even though the fully grown cats are an inch or more long, their golden and brown tones make them one with the aging flowers and they're tough to see.

As this site is only an hour from my house, and there were a few birds to be killed by making a visit, I was there the following morning. The Goldenrod Stowaway caterpillars were still present, and I saw about six of them. It only took seven years from the last time that I photographed the moth to capture the larval part of its lifecycle. Still missing the cocoon and egg, but those things are REALLY hard to find. It would probably involve raising a moth through its entire lifecycle in a controlled situation to guarantee opportunities to shoot all four phases of its being.

But to most people, myself included, the moth and caterpillar are probably the coolest aspects of the animal. They are certainly the easiest to find, in most cases, but as I have learned many times over, it may take years to piece together the photos.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks nest in Ohio: First record!

UPDATE: As of yesterday, 9/16/2022, all nine ducklings were still present and doing well. I'll try and post any updates on Ohio's first nesting of this species. The young won't be able to fly until about the second week in November, and here's hoping they can fledge and escape to more tropical climes in time. Read on for the whole story...

A Black-bellied Whistling-Duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis) emerges from pondside vegetation with nine chicks in tow. They represent the first documented nesting record in Ohio. This was my first look at the brood early yesterday morning.

On September 8, 2022, word emerged about nesting Black-bellied Whistling Ducks nesting on a small farm pond in Wayne County. The landowner, Henry Miller, noticed the ducks on his pond, and quite understandably did not recognize this largely tropical species. A neighbor, Harry Swartzentruber, made the identification, Joe Rabor got the word out, and the rest is history.

The Miller family kindly made their pond accessible to interested birders, and I visited yesterday. They have gone to some lengths to accommodate visitors at their sheep farm, and their guest log showed that several dozen people had visited as of yesterday.

The Wayne County breeding habitat of Ohio's first nesting Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks. The pond is only one-third of an acre, but lushly vegetated along its banks. The water is covered with Lesser Duckweed (Lemna minor), a native aquatic plant. When I arrived, the adult had the brood deep in vegetation up on one of the banks, but mostly they spent time foraging in the water close to shore.

Map courtesy Birds of the World/Cornell Lab of Ornithology. ASIDE: I've long been a subscriber to Birds of the World, and highly recommend a subscription for any student of birds. The comprehensive monographs of nearly all bird species are a wealth of information and will further anyone's understanding of our avifauna.

As the map shows, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck is very much a tropical bird. For a long time, in the U.S. it was largely a Rio Grande Valley (Texas) specialty. That was the northern limit for the species. In the last two decades, especially, this duck has wandered far to the north in ever increasing numbers. Ohio's first record dates to May 30, 2004, in Hamilton County. I remember that record well, especially as I was secretary of the Ohio Bird Records Committee at the time. That bird didn't stick but it was photographed. The listers needn't have fretted, as the 2004 bird was a precursor of things to come. In the years since, Ohio has had probably a few dozen records, and multiple reports annually in more recent times. This pattern holds true throughout much of the eastern U.S.

Nine chicks arrange themselves neatly around their mom (or dad?). Apparently at first, there were ten chicks, and I have heard reports that a Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) that makes its home in the pond got one of them. Big snappers are a very real threat to young ducklings. Hopefully it will get no more.

At the time of this photo, I think the chicks are 5-6 days old. Observers should notice fluffy down feathers start to emerge within a few days. They'll quickly lose the cool black stripes. Within the second week they'll go on a growth spurt and should be able to take wing in about 60 days, which would be early in the second week of November. This is very late, though, and north-central Ohio will have experienced some very frosty weather by then. Why they nested so late in the year is a mystery, at least to me, and these whistling-ducks, evolved for far warmer climes, are probably pushing the envelope in terms of survivability with this abnormally later nesting.

The little ones preen, feed, and hang with the parent in the shallows. One little fellow exercises his wing nubbins, flapping them vigorously just as adult ducks often do. Another of the mysteries in this case is the fate of the other parent. Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks co-raise broods, with both male and female taking turns incubating eggs, and caring for the chicks. The juveniles even stay with the parents for several months following fledging. I don't know anyone that has seen two adults together, despite many collective hours of observers watching the birds. Apparently, something happened to it, but the remaining parent seems to be managing well. I do not know what sex it is, as Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks are monomorphic (look the same), and I do not know of any way to distinguish male and female.

The adult whistling-duck broods the chicks - her plumage is afluff, creating a warm blanket and all nine chicks are underneath her. Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks cannot thermoregulate (manage their own body temperature) for their first 10-12 days, so they'll occasionally huddle under an adult. It was a bit cool - 60ish F in this morning.

Another mystery is where the nest site was. Black-bellied Whistling-Duck is a habitual cavity-nester, and I didn't see any likely sites at hand. However, they can ground nest, if need be, and sometimes even use odd sites such as barn lofts. I have heard, thirdhand, that the nest was actually discovered, but don't know any details.

This is an exciting record, and probably the first of more nestings to follow in Ohio and elsewhere in the Midwest. Wisconsin has already had a breeding record, in 2020. It'll be interesting to see how this apparent range expansion plays out in the years to come. For now, we can wish the best for the Wayne County brood and hope the lateness of the season does not cause them issues.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Wild Ohio program: Newark Public Library, 9/14 at 1 pm

 

A bit late on this - sorry - but I'm giving a program this Wednesday, September 14 at 1 pm at the Newark Public Library in downtown Newark. The talk is loosely structured on the book above, and is a quick foray around Ohio, looking at some of our most iconic sites and interesting flora and fauna. The program is full of imagery.

Admission is free, but the library asks that you register in advance - details HERE. We'd love to have you!

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Warblers feeding on joe-pye

A male Cape May Warbler (Setophaga tigrina) shifts position in a Red Elm (Ulmus rubra). I encountered a mixed foraging flock of warblers this morning not far from where I live, in Franklin County, Ohio. Co-dominant in the flock were Cape May and Tennessee warblers. The site was a deciduous woodland bordering bisected by a broad powerline cut. Red and White oaks, elms, cherry and other caterpillar-rich trees were plentiful and unsurprisingly that's where the birds were focused.

A female Cape May Warbler works the densely flowered inflorescence of Sweet-scented Joe-pye (Eutrochium purpureum). The powerline cut was full of this statuesque plant. Even though the joe-pye was mostly done flowering, it was full of insects. Several Cape May and Tennessee warblers worked the senescing flowers, yanking what mostly appeared to be orthopterans (crickets, katydids, etc.) and spiders out.

A Tennessee Warbler (Leiothlypis peregrina) peers intently into joe-pye flowers. It was interesting to watch them rustle about the flowers, sometimes spending a minute or more in the same spot, seizing early instar crickets and spiders.

I'm going to pay more attention to the joe-pyes in fall migration.

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Bell's Vireo, and its enigmatic history in Ohio

A Bell's Vireo (Vireo bellii) sings its charismatic song of scratchy gurgled phrases from the cover of a small Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii). "Thicket Vireo" would be an appropriate name for this denizen of scrubby early successional zones. The story behind the "Bell's" part of the little bird's appellation is an interesting one. John Graham Bell was a taxidermist and - as probably most taxidermists of his day were - a collector of animal specimens. Bell was part of John James Audubon's expedition to the Dakotas and vicinity in 1843. The team had encamped near a trading post named Fort Union, when one of the fort's hunters shot a nearby American Bison. Audubon and Bell hustled to the site of the kill, pistols in hand, only to realize the huge bull was not dead when it stood and charged them. The quick-thinking Bell dropped the bull with a well-placed rifle shot, when it was nearly upon Audubon. In gratitude, Audubon bestowed the newly discovered vireo with the taxidermist's name (the Bell's Sparrow is also named for John Bell).

An eBird map showing Bell's Vireo records in the Midwestern Great Plains and prairie regions. While some of the Ohio records probably represent migrants, most are of breeders, or at least attempted breeders. Records drop off dramatically to the east of Central Ohio - the latter region represents the easternmost limits of this species core breeding range, although Bell's Vireo quickly becomes much more common westward. In Ohio, it is a rarity, although regular and of annual occurrence at a number of nesting haunts.

This is a well-known map constructed by Ohio State University ecologist Edgar Transeau in 1935. The black zones indicate Transeau's depiction of prairie distribution, although even by the time he made the map, much prairie had already fallen to the plow. Transeau termed the eastern boundary of America's great prairie ecoregion the Prairie Peninsula, with its eastern terminus in western and central Ohio. While we now know that Transeau missed some prairie, overall, his map remains quite accurate. And this map could also serve as a pretty accurate range map for the Bell's Vireo.

Here's the range map of Bell's Vireo, from Birds of the World/Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Scroll up and compare maps - I'm sure you'll see a pattern. Orange represents the breeding distribution, yellow is migratory corridors, blue is the wintering range and purple indicates year-round populations. Bell's Vireo is split into four subspecies, and I'm discussing the nominate Vireo bellii bellii, which is the subspecies, that breeds in the Great Plains and eastern prairie regions - the zones covered by the first two maps posted above. The Least Bell's Vireo (V. bellii pusillus) is an endangered subspecies breeding locally in southern California and adjacent Mexico.

The Bell's Vireos breeding in Ohio and elsewhere in the eastern limits of the prairie region are very much prairie birds. Every site that I know of regarding nesters or potential nesters in Ohio corresponds perfectly with former prairie regions. That's true of the bird in the first photo - it occupies brushy habitat in a big metropark prairie restoration towards the eastern edge of the Darby Plains, a formerly massive prairie that blanketed about 1,500 square miles in west-central Ohio. As something like 99.9% of our former prairies have been destroyed and mostly converted to corn, soybeans, and wheat, prairie birds like the Bell's Vireo and many others have declined, often alarmingly.

I was at the amazing Kankakee Sands prairie in western Indiana, on the Illinois state line, earlier this summer, when breeding birds were in full swing. It seemed that every thicket had its Bell's Vireos. The site in the photo, which had plenty of Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), had two singing vireos, and I heard many others elsewhere in the Kankakee Sands. As one moves westward and more into the heart of their range, Bell's Vireos increase.

The Ohio enigma, as I suppose it could be called, is that Bell's Vireo was not detected in the state until 1962 - in Franklin County. That bird was followed up by another in the same county, in 1966. Both were spring migrants, in birding hotspots of the time, and not in suitable breeding habitat. The first nesting pair was discovered near Cincinnati in 1968, and there have been scores of records since, as shown on the eBird map above (which does not include all of them).

This fairly recent spate of Ohio records has been attributed to an overall eastward expansion of Bell's Vireo - a species that has declined overall in at least the last 50 years. I have to wonder if these secretive little songbirds were just overlooked. Their fidelity to former prairie regions seems undeniable. General knowledge of Ohio's prairies in the 1960's-70's was probably not as well-known as it is today. In fact, as I often see demonstrated, people generally do not have a good sense of what our habitats USED to look like, in the not-so-distant past. An understanding of former conditions can go a long way in accurately interpreting animal distribution, or lack thereof, in the present. Also, people's birding by ear skills were not as good in the earlier days of birding, I suspect. If you don't know the song of Bell's Vireo, you are going to miss all or nearly all of these thicket skulkers. My hunch is that very small numbers of Bell's Vireos have always occupied Ohio's prairie remnants but were long overlooked. As birders learned about them and how to find them, records increased.

Continued interest and action in restoring Ohio's prairies should only help Bell's Vireo. As long as attention is given to early successional shrubby habitat - a phase of ecological succession that is often given short shrift.