Friday, October 30, 2009

Amazing jumping spiders!

I don’t often use other people’s photos on this blog, but I just had to share some of the coolest macro-work being done, anywhere. Following are some utterly amazing shots courtesy of Thomas Shahan of Oklahoma.

I came into contact with Thomas early this summer, in the course of working on a spider project. After seeing his work, I contacted him and he was very gracious in agreeing to work with our team. You can see a broad range of his photos RIGHT HERE.

Other people have noticed Thomas’s photography, and this attention led to his recent appearance on the Today Show. Check THIS LINK to see it.

Below are a few of Shahan’s stunning images of jumping spiders, one of his favorite subjects. All of these species are among the 76 species of jumping spiders known to occur in Ohio. Enjoy!

A male Habronattus coecatus (most of these spiders haven’t yet been branded with formal common names). Quite the charmer, this little guy. Looks big, ferocious, and deadly, but at the same time just about as cute as a spider can possibly get. Most jumpers are tiny; a big female of some species might push the tape to 3/8 of an inch, and many males would be measured in millimeters.

They are ferocious predators, albeit on a Lilliputian scale. Good thing for us they aren’t the size of German Shepherds or we’d have a situation straight out of Eight Legged Freaks!

Hentzia mitrata, male, looking like something out of a science fiction movie. Seen on this scale, the eyes of jumping spiders are one of the dominant features. There are eight, but four are typically small and concealed. Jumping spiders see better than any other family of spiders, and use their exceptional vision to sight prey. You can test this yourself. Next time you see a jumper, approach it closely and lean in towards it. The spider will cock its body to better watch you, and turn to keep you in its line of sight. Sometimes they even will approach, and if you are shooting photos, are notorious for jumping right onto the camera lens. My hunch is they see their reflection, and are attacking it.

An incredible closeup of the binocularlike peepers of a female Dimorphic Jumper, Maevia inclemens. In many species, the various sets of eyes are all canted in different directions, allowing the animal to see many different angles simultaneously.

Male Paraphidippus aurantius, sporting walruslike tusks. They are actually the chelicerae, which are grasping mouthparts and are connected to the venom glands. In short, the business end and the above is definitely a view that you’ll want to see if you are a potential meal.

Female Phidippus putnami, and just darned cute for a spider. She looks like a little punk rocker with spiked hair.

Jumping spiders are aptly named. They locomote with incredible springy bounds, and when suitable prey is detected, it'll be leaped upon, often from a good distance away. Some jumpers can reportedly make leaps of up to 80 times the length of their body! To match this feat, a six-foot tall person would have to be able to jump something like 500 feet - from a standing start!

Another amazing thing about jumping spiders is their ability to retain the exact location of prey, even when it isn't in view. This allows the spider to stalk prey, and work into an optimal position for pouncing, without having to constantly keep the victim to be in sight. Jumpers can even leap from a blind spot, and apparently still strike with deadly accuracy.
My personal favorite, a male Phidippus mystaceus. That is just a jaw-dropping photo. As small as this spider is, one would never have any idea of its beautiful complexity without benefit of a photo like this. And photos like this are NOT easy to get. Shahan spends hours with his tiny eight-legged subjects, and no doubt takes many hundreds of shots, most of which are probably not keepers.

Work such as this is not only interesting to look at, and quite artistic, it goes a long ways towards getting people interested in spiders - one of the most maligned groups of animals.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A blue forest cat

I like cats. Always have. I'm a dog person too, but circumstances don't allow for one now. Besides, I probably relate more to a cat's attitude. Dogs essentially live to please their owners. Cats essentially live to manipulate their owners into pleasing them. So, who's cooler?

Anyway, I've got a neat cat. His name is Oscar and he's a 20 lb. Norwegian Forest Cat. These beasts are sort of the malamutes of the feline world, and in addition to their jumbosity, they are very friendly and like people.

But, as you've heard, a cat's curiosity can get them in trouble.

My home is at present in a state of upheaval. Nothing bad; I'm just having the place painted from stem to stern, ceiling to floor. The guy I'm working with, Vincente, is doing the job while I'm at work and it's looking good. Of course, I'll be glad when it's done and everything is back in its correct place, but temporary chaos comes with major renovation.

Oscar the forest cat. This breed traveled with the Vikings, and may have been the first type of domesticated cat to set foot in the New World. They have tufted ears in the manner of a lynx, stupendous thick long tails which can be wrapped around their faces for warmth, and giant paws that serve as snowshoes.

Perhaps most exceptional is their pelage, a silky multi-layered affair that is exceptional at fending off cold. When he was smaller and could fit, Oscar liked to leap into the refrigerator when the door was open and sit on the shelf.

Anyway, when I arrived home today, I noticed something odd about his plumage. Today, Vincente painted some walls "flyway blue", a really sharp color. Upon closer inspection...

Oscar had also been painted flyway blue! Great. I'm confident Vincente didn't paint him; you remember what I said about a cat's curiosity.

I was getting my camera out to document this blunder, looked over, mystery solved. He likes to lean up against walls just like a delinquent leans on the corner lamp post, and apparently hasn't learned the pitfalls of wet paint.

I'm not sure how to get this stuff out of his fur. So, anyone in the market for a blue forest cat? Quite the novelty; you could probably display him on the carnival circuit or something.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Duck Stamp!

This beautiful painting of an American Wigeon graces the brand new, 2010-11 Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, less formally and more commonly known as the "Duck Stamp".

The wigeon was painted by Robert Bealle of Waldorf, Maryland, and he beat out a formidable pool of talent to win. Having one's work chosen to grace the stamp is one of the highest honors a wildlife artist can claim.

I was glad to see a wigeon, or "baldpate" in hunter slang-speak, win. It isn't the first time wigeon have appeared on the duck stamp; the 1942-43 and 1984-85 stamps featured them. But this is a great duck, and it's good to see them in the limelight once again.

Duck stamps are available at many post offices, or even more easily, RIGHT HERE!

Buy one, if you like protecting the environment and want to help. Few if any programs are more effective than duck stamps for the protection of habitat. Ninety-eight cents of EVERY dollar raised goes back on the ground in the form of wetlands and other habitat. If you know of any program with a better ratio than that, I'd like to hear about it.

Since its inception in 1934, the stamp has raised over $750 million, which has resulted in the protection of over 5.3 million acres. That includes Ohio's own Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge - over 90% of it was acquired with stamp funds.

Hunters of waterfowl must buy a duck stamp, but increasing numbers of conservation-minded folks that don't hunt are buying them, especially birders.

Every now and again, I'll hear someone grousing about the stamp, and that it is just a tool to promote and support hunting. I always want to tell these people to take some basic lessons on ecology.

Anytime large blocks of land are protected, no matter the source of funds or the motivation, lots of plants and animals benefit. Not just ducks. I've seen a HUGE number of non-fowl birds on stamp-funded lands, and I bet you have, too. Not only that, but I've found some spectacularly rare plants on duck stamp-purchased turf, and seen more cool insects, mammals, and other flora and fauna than I could begin to recite.

Buy a stamp. Not only will you be doing nature a favor, you'll also get one heck of a piece of art.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A license to bird

Some birders like to wear their passion on their plates. For some time, I've been snapping shots of various bird-related license plates, and have a amassed a fairly vast assemblage. Not just birds, either - anything related to natural history.

Hanging out at birding hotspots, like Magee Marsh, Cape May, the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and the like greatly increases ones odds of finding a "life plate". Below are a few from my collection, nearly all from my home state of Ohio.

One of my favorites. It's clever. And in code. A birder will know it's meaning, though - sort of like a secret handshake.

Various iterations of chickadee are popular.

A sleek plate featuring a slick bird. Note: it's a double-whammy. That cardinal plate raises funds to support Ohio's non-game program, and the money is used for all sorts of good stuff, including those popular bird CD's and booklets, produced by the Ohio Division of Wildlife. Get a cardinal plate!

Ah, a fan of the hooked bill/sharp talon set!

A shorebird enthusiast. "Peep" was probably already taken.

No group of songbirds is more popular than warblers, at least in this part of the world. It's likely that every decipherable form is taken.


A crow and jay fan. And another code; pretty much only birders will know the meaning. And...another cardinal! Of all the special plates sold by the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, this one is Numero Uno by far. Ohioans do support nature and conservation!

This one might flummox some birders. It's the scientific name - at least nearly so - of the Wood Duck (Aix sponsa).

We'll assume this one belongs to an avid owler. Either that or they just like to yell a lot. The bumper sticker suggests an avian bent, though.

Hmmm... I suspect this one commemorates some sort of fantastic experience with the Heckyll and Jeckyll of the corvid world :-)

A question.

An answer.

Finally, my own plate. It's adorned my wheels since 2004, and I am happy to say, just switched over to a new, very environmentally friendly vehicle last Saturday. We don't have many eiders here in Ohio, but I've seen two of the four on our waters. Might be waiting a while for the Steller's and Spectacled, though.

If you've got any cool bird plate photos, send 'em along.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Insect Symphony: Final Movement

The eves are growing cool, and around here we've been flirting with frost. When the curtain drops on fall and freezing nighttime temperatures become frequent, our insect songsters are silenced.

This, to me, is a bummer. Kind of like when the last of the Neotropical warblers and other migrants wing south to their tropical winter haunts, and we're deprived of their beauty and song for another long, cold winter.

But, the toughest of the crickets are still producing their melodies. The three below are the ones that I'm still hearing every day, and they'll continue on into November, at least in warmer microclimates. Enjoy 'em will you can!

Allard's Ground Cricket, Allonemobius allardi, female. Note her long needlelike ovipositor sticking out like a cactus spine from the rear. This is an extremely common species, and like the next two, is in your yard if you live in Ohio or this part of the country.

Ground crickets are little; less than half the size of the large black field crickets that deliver the classic cricket chirp chirp chirp. They are ubiquitous denizens of lawns, weedy areas, fields - nearly any open to semi-open habitat.

This species is often the first sound of nature that I hear upon leaving my house, along with the next two species. Allard's Ground Cricket makes a semi-musical trill that goes on and on. To me, it has a somewhat tinkling quality, and the rate is slow enough that you can discern the individual pulses, but they are still too fast to count.

Carolina Ground Cricket, Eunemobius carolinus, male. Another miniscule cricket, and every bit as common as the Allard's, if not more so. Visually, they have a browner cast than the very black Allard's Ground Cricket.

But you're going to hear scores more of these insects that you'll ever see, so learning the songs is the way to go - just as with birds. The Carolina also has a rapid trill, but it is unmusical and very fast - an almost electric crackling, far to rapid to discern individual pulses. Far more rapid than the Allard's, and it is common to hear both from one spot, so an interested observer can quickly learn to tell them apart.

Another thing: ground crickets are well-named; they sing from the ground, so that habitat preference also eliminates other possibilities. In fact, it must be their preference for lurking in grass duff, leaf litter, and even concrete and asphalt crevices that accounts for their ability to last into cold weather. These microclimates can remain significantly warmer than unprotected areas just a few inches above.

Carolina Ground Crickets will often be heard singing into November. I heard one last night, as I entered the local Krogers. It was against a wall behind a propane tank display - air temperature 39 degrees.

Finally, my hands-down favorite of the elfin lawn crickets, the Striped Ground Cricket, Allonemobius fasciatus. The one above is a male, and was singing while I watched and photographed it. These are truly wee; seemingly only half the size of those other two ground crickets. They are so tiny that most people would flush them under foot and never begin to notice them, or if they did, would probably not guess them to be crickets.

But everyone hears them, and I'm still hearing Stripes every day. Males create a wonderfully bright, slightly metallic series of chirps that are uniformly delivered in series. The song is much slower than the preceding ground crickets, and one can keep up with and count the pulses.

For such a small insect, the song of the Striped Ground Cricket is astonishingly loud and carries some distance. Listen tomorrow! It'll be Indian Summerish and warm enough that all of these crickets will be going at it. If you are outside at all, you are bound to hear them.

Enjoy the final insect symphony will you can. It won't last much longer.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

House Centipede

Not long ago, I was at my desk in my office when a shadowy movement flickered through the corner of my eye. I glanced over to see this wraithlike leggy arthropod shimmer up the wall at lightning speed. Rather than disappear into a crevice or cranny as they so often do, it paused. My lucky day! With camera at hand, I was able to get some shots.

House Centipedes, Scutigera coleoptrata, are the House Sparrows of the Arthropod world. They are native only to the Mediterranean, but have been spread far and wide across the globe. Like the sparrow, they are not often found far from human dwellings, at least in this neck of the woods. They were first found in the States in 1849, and have since colonized much of the continent.

Kind of hard to tell which end is which, eh? The term for that - head looking like tail - is automimicry, and the idea is to fool predators into snapping at the wrong end. The centipede's head is at the bottom in the above photo. Fooled me - took the Sentimental Sapsucker to set me right! (see comments)

Check those legs - 15 pairs! All those feet make for a real speed demon, and House Centipedes can allegedly cover an astonishing 16 inches in a second. Anyone who has ever seen one at full gallop would probably believe that claim.

Unlike millipedes, which have far more legs, albeit stubbier ones, centipedes are predators. They use their tremendous speed to run down, capture and kill lesser critters such as spiders and small insects. I HAD a very nice pair of House Spiders, Parasteatoda tepidariorum, and their web by the window where I saw this leggy killer. Note: HAD. I think I know what became of them. So, what do you fear the most? Spiders, or horrifying speed demons that look like a ghostly feather and startle the bejeezus out of you when they dash across the wall? At least the legged feather kills and eats the spiders!

The biting parts are armed with venom glands. Not to fear - it's mouth parts are too small to penetrate our skin, but spiders are not so lucky.

Chances are good that some of these fascinating creatures reside in YOUR dwelling. They're generally nocturnal and prone to lurking in humid climes, which typically relegates them to the basement. And if you are like most people, chances are you're more afraid of spiders than centipedes, so it might be best to just let 'em be. They'll be hard at work when you are sleeping, scuttling about spider-hunting.

Plus, let it be known that House Centipedes have incredible longevity. If all goes well, one can last for seven years. Thoughtlessly crush one, and you've just made paste of an animal that can outlive most songbirds. Better to allow them to guard the basement, serving as efficient spider sentinels.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Big Sit 2009!

Dawn breaks yesterday morning on a ridge high over the burg of Whipple, Ohio. Located in the southeastern hill country, the burbs of Whipple also are home to the farm of Julie Zickefoose, Bill Thompson III, and their kids Liam and Phoebe. I was there to participate in the annual Big Sit, an effort to tally as many bird species as possible within 24 hours. The rub? You can't leave a designated 17 foot diameter circle, or at least of you do, you can't count any birds seen while AWOL.

I've made this scene a number of times, and arrived about 6 am to catch the last call notes of migrant songbirds passing overhead. There always seems to be a flurry of activity just prior to sunrise, and seeing the sun's first glimmers from this location is worth the early-bird travel in its own right.

The all-time record is 69 species, and with wonderful weather predicted, we had high hopes for smashing it. Thanks, as always, to Bill, Julie, Liam, and Phoebe for their always gracious hospitality.

A view of the Thompson/Zickefoose estate from the far reaches of the meadow. Autumn is a glorious time here, with the fields lit in technicolor hues courtesy winged sumac, New England aster, various goldenrods and other plants of fall.

The mowed path stretches to the house, and you may notice an odd architectural anomaly jutting high in the sky. That's the "birding tower", a 40-foot wooden skyscraper built just to up the birding ante. Our big sit takes place on top of the tower.

Tony, Lee, and Nina keep vigil. In regards to our Big Sit circle boundary, there's no rule-breaking here. Step outside the circle, and you fall several stories. Keeps cheating to a minimum. That fishing pole-like contraption is rigged with a crank handle and rope; it serves to hoist supplies to the sky-watchers. It's amazing how many bodies can wedge into this space. I think we had 15 people and one small dog up there at one point.

While this sort of birding may seem like trite nonsense to the uninitiated, it is actually a fantastic way to hone one's skills. Some tremendous birders make this scene, and you'll see some spectacular identifications. Every distant speck, each faint peep, and every speeding blur offers an ID challenge and we want to nail them all. We don't, but we do pretty well, I'd say.

The northward view. Spectacular. The rolling ridges stretch for miles, richly carpeted in oak, maple, tulip, ash, and many other tree species. By mid-October, the chlorophyllic mask of green is fading, leaving a colorful palette of oranges, reds, and yellows in its wake.

To the south is the meadow and its covering of herbs and grasses, creating a diversity of habitat. Way beyond lies the Ohio River, and those most distant hills are West Virginia.

Julie Zickefoose holds an Eastern Bluebird that's not quite up to snuff. It is is one of scores of wild birds that she's taken in and rehabilitated over the years. This one was doing well and will hopefully be released successfully. Fortunately, she detected the attempted depradations of the Ozzy Osbourneish hubby Bill just before he lunged. In his defense, one does work up an appetite after hours on the tower.

Speaking of bluebirds, they've got quite a nest box trail on the farm, and there are more of these gorgeous little thrushes about than you can shake a stick at.
The fifth wheel of the Thompson tribe, Chet Baker. This highly social Boston Terrier delights in the company of people, and asks to be carried up to the tower's summit to help with the Big Sit. This dog is not as richly plumaged as, say, a Norwegian Forest Cat, and nippy days set him to trembling like a cottonwood leaf in a wind storm. So, we wrap him in blankets. Like some sort of goggle-eyed pied turtle, he peeks just his nose from the swadddling to keep an account of our activities. And, of course, up his odds of having someone pay him some attention.

The tower offers a panoramic view of the hills of Washington County; in the video above I pan my camera around so that you can see the perspective that we get.

Lots of bird-friendly vegetation skirts the tower and yard, including a number of Gray Birches, Betula populifolia. These white-barked catkin factories attract birds galore and constantly engage our attention. Yesterday, two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers spent most of the day working the birch, and I made the above video through one of our scopes. The sapsucker is excavating deep sapwells to get into the deeper flowing autumnal sap. In spring, when the sap runs shallow, they dig smaller round holes.

Much of our tower time is devoted to sky-watching, and yesterday brought gorgeous blue ether dappled with odd wisps of cloud. We like some cloud cover; the raptors and other fliers show up better with a backdrop.

Turkey Vulture comes in to check us out. We saw lots of these, and sometimes at their level, one of the advantages of being several stories up in the air.

The familiar shape of a Red-tailed Hawk. There are resident pairs, but we saw many migrants passing by as well. The tower is an excellent hawk-watching platform, and allows observers to see birds for a mile or more in all directions.

Speeding bullet, a male Sharp-shinned Hawk streaks by. This one put on a spectacular show, repeatedly strafing a female Cooper's Hawk. This aerial dogfight had us all enraptured, and offered a dramatic and direct comparison as to how radically different in size this two species can be. The sharpie looked about the same as a Blue Jay to a crow. Feathered balls of testosterone, Sharp-shinned Hawks seem to delight in harassing other birds.

My stint on the tower lasted for 13 hours. Finally, the sun dipped below the horizon, and our prospects for adding new species dipped dramatically. We finished the day with a very respectable 67 species, just two shy of tying the record and a scant three short of busting it. Oh well, maybe next year.

Thanks again to our gracious hosts, Julie, Bill, Liam, and Phoebe.

Friday, October 9, 2009

To the Fringed Gentian

A lonely, remote stretch of Lake Erie shoreline, completely unsullied by development. I recently had the good fortune to visit this area courtesy of John Pogacnik, and witness an incredible botanical spectacle.

On this day, brutal westerly winds whipped the lake into a chocolate froth, making for some spectacular scenery but difficult photography. This long stretch of shore, in northeast Ohio's Lake County, is covered with rocky cobble and piled with driftwood.

We had come primarily to investigate these steep bluffs, their most clayey soils overlooking Lake Erie.

There! Our targets, and we were not disappointed. All of those flecks of blue are Fringed Gentians, Gentianopsis crinita. This photo is but a tiny snapshot of the bounty that these banks supported. So many were the gentians that an accurate accounting seemed impossible, but I thought that there might be as many as ten thousand. I attempted to more or less thoroughly count the number of plants in one particularly verdant patch, and came up with perhaps 400-500 gentians. And that site was but a fraction of the gentian-filled habitat that is present.

Fringed Gentian is a rare plant in Ohio, although one would never know it from this site. I'm not aware of any other lakefront gentian population, nor any others as large as this one.

We informally dubbed this place "Gentian Bluffs".

Fringed Gentians are photo-sensitive, and thus were not fully opened on this cloudy day. This specimen was one of few that was largely unfurled, offering a taste of the exquisite beauty of the fringed petals. It is as if they've been spun from the finest silk of the richest blue to be found. You can glimpse the prominent blue nectar guides within the corolla; road maps for bees.

One could argue that Fringed Gentians are even more striking when only at half mast. The ragged-tipped petals encircle the corolla, as if twisted around it by a counter-clockwise swirl of elfin fingers. This clump has a distinctly purplish cast.

Others are a gorgeous cerulean blue; one of the showiest colors to be found anywhere in nature. Seeing thousands of these beauties in one locale was hard to fathom; this spot is truly one of Ohio's most amazing floristic displays. As of now, the place is privately held, but if all goes well it'll one day be protected park land. If that comes to pass, and I really hope that it does, many a person will make the early October pilgrimage here to see the gentian magic.

I was startled to find one plant that sported nearly quaternate leaves, or a set of four when there should only be a pair. Some genetic anomaly caused two pairs of leaves to be nearly flush, creating the four-leaved effect.

I hope to return here - many times! - but especially on a sunny day when the flowers are fully expanded. Even as they were, seeing ths many gentians was an amazing experience.

A rather dour-looking William Cullen Bryant, perhaps reflecting upon beautiful wildflowers. He certainly paid attention to botanical treats, and in 1847 penned the poem To the Fringed Gentian. It follows:

To the Fringed Gentian

THOU blossom bright with autumn dew,
And coloured with the heaven's own blue
That openest when the quiet light
Succeeds the keen and frosty night.

Thou comest not when violets lean
O'er wandering brooks and springs unseen,
Or columbines, in purple dressed,
Nod o'er the ground-bird's hidden nest.

Thou waitest late and com'st alone,
When woods are bare and birds are flown,
And frosts and shortening days portend
The aged year is near his end.

Then doth thy sweet and quiet eye
Look through its fringes to the sky,
Blue—blue—as if that sky let fall
A flower from its cerulean wall.

I would that thus, when I shall see
The hour of death draw near to me,
Hope, blossoming within my heart,
May look to heaven as I depart.