Thursday, September 30, 2010

Those crazy gentians

A cluster of odd saclike flowers bristles from the summit of a robust Yellowish Gentian, Gentiana alba. A few weekends back, while plumbing the depths of Adams County in southernmost Ohio for rare flora, the inimitable Daniel Boone showed us this station of gentians. Yellowish Gentian is quite the rarity here - listed as an Ohio threatened species - and I'd seen it only a few times prior.

I'd concede that Yellowish Gentian is rather bland in coloration, but that's no reason to refer to it as the "Plain Gentian", as the USDA Plant Database does. Any deficiency of bright hues is more than compensated for by the outrageous floral structure. I mean, this is it - the flowers don't open. They are like little paper bags, and this strange morphology serves them well in weeding out unwanted pollinators, as we shall see.

Sometimes Yellowish Gentian flowers do open a bit, and I helped tease this one apart a bit so we could cast a look inside into the pollinary chamber. We can now clearly see the bowling pin-like carpels capped with their stigmas - the pollen receptacles. Off to the sides of the carpels and not really visible are the stamens and anthers, which contain the pollen.

If you are this flower, the whole idea is to get someone to bring you new pollen - pollen from another plant. Those lime-green stripes on the interior of the petals - petals are known as plaits in gentian-speak - help to lure in the pollen-delivering insect version of the UPS man.

This is another fall-blooming gentian, and it's looking good right now. Bottle Gentian, Gentiana andrewsii, is considerably brighter than the aforementioned species, and has a higher WOW factor. The blue stripes, or nectar guides, are much bolder on this species, but again, they are on the INTERIOR of the flower.

Bottle Gentian is a truly gorgeous species, and I can't imagine anyone not fawning over it for at least a few seconds if they were lucky enough to happen into some. The flowers in this photo are perfectly mature. Note how the flower's summit is tightly closed, and the blue nectar guides so clearly visible on the dissected flower can't really even be discerned, by our eyes at least.

But we don't have the eye-power of a bumblebee.
Bottle-type gentians have evolved an intimate relationship with large, fuzzy bumblebees of the genus Bombus, and these insects have vision that transcends ours in some respects. The bumbles undoubtedly see through the flower, a la Superman X-ray vision, and those showy-looking blue stripes jump out to them. And once a bumble has spotted those lovely azure strips, it must have them, at all costs!

The photo above and the next two were taken by my friend Ethan Kistler, and show the process of a bumblebee invading a Closed Gentian, Gentiana clausa. In the first shot, the bee desperately seeks a path of entry into the flower, and quickly realizes that it must push itself into the tiny gap at the flower's summit. These are brutish, powerful insects, and that's what it takes to penetrate the gentian's defenses.

A bit of prying and prodding, and it's in. This is an outstanding example of a botanical lure - an immobile piece of vegetation that is able to successfully pull in an animal, and make it complete the plant's reproductive cycle.

One just couldn't design a more effective pollinator system than has this gentian. The bumblebee is now completely inside the flower, and what we've got here is the equivalent of a fuzzy pipecleaner tightly shoved into a tube and being twisted about. Not only is the bee thoroughly dousing the stigmas with pollen it has brought over from the last gentian visited, thus cross-pollinating this plant, its fuzzy body is also getting totally dusted with fresh pollen to take to yet another gentian.

Just another of the scores of fascinating plant-insect relationships.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

All about owls

Tiny but furious, a Northern Saw-whet Owl makes his feelings known. "Be off, you dumb blithering human", he seems to be saying.

For anyone in the vicinity of Lima - not Peru, Ohio! - next Tuesday night, October 5th, I'll be giving a program about owls at the Tri-Moraine Audubon Society meeting. It's a PowerPoint with lots of cool images and audio, starring all of the nocturnal hooters that visit the Buckeye State, plus some others.

The group surprised me by whipping up this cool poster, and it has all of the necessary factoids should you wish to drop by.

Sleepy Barred Owl dozes in a gnarly Swamp White Oak.

Owls. An appropriate subject for the Halloween season.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Little Brown Bat

Little Brown Bat, Myotis lucifugus.

A few weeks ago, I once again had the pleasure of spending time in a darkened forest with Merrill Tawse, along with a large group of other batters. Yes, batters, and not of the baseball variety. We were there to observe Merrill and crew mistnetting the little furry flyers, and if you ever get the chance to go on such an expedition, do it.

Note the band affixed to the bat's wing in the photo above. They aren't catching these things for the fun of it; Merrill has for years been banding bats, and the whole procedure works essentially as it does for birds, except it's done at night. In this case, they'd set up a series of large nets in - not by - the Clear Fork of the Mohican River near Mohican State Park. Bats love a good waterway - lots of flying insects to feed upon - and the number of bats patrolling this stream is astonishing.

We've spread the bat's wings, revealing the intricate handlike bone structure that supports the membranous tissue. It's amazing how small bats look up close and personal. Nonetheless, they've got sharp little needlelike teeth, and won't hesitate to use them on offending humanoids who pluck them from the skies, hence the handler's thick gloves.

Bats utilize echolocation to navigate, and it works quite well. Essentially, they emit a rapid series of clicks, which fire ahead of the animal and then bounce back off of whatever objects lie ahead. Sensitive receptors on the bat allow it to instantly triangulate on the object and determine other information about the structure, such as size, distance, and speed. So fine-tuned is bat echolocation that they easily pick up on small insects and effortless snap them from the blackened sky, in conditions where you or I would hardly see our hand in front of our face.

For the bander of bats, this mammalian sonar system means they're hard to catch. The bat may fly into the net once, but often not again. They detect the fine mesh screens and whoosh right over the top.

There are a dozen species of bats that occur in Ohio, and the Little Brown Bat in the first two photos is probably the most common. The one above is a Northern Long-eared Bat, Myotis septentrionalis. This Spocklike creature was caught by Merrill a few years back during an Ohio Ornithological Society field trip, and it turned out that Merrill had previously captured the beast - four years prior!

Bats live a long time. They're essentially furry Rip Van Winkles, and spend most of their time fast asleep. More than asleep, really; when a bat crashes, it enters a torpor and drops its bodily functions down to but a fraction of what their system would operate at when the animal is active. The upshot is that it takes bats a long time to use up their resources, and thus the little critters can live for decades - quite remarkable for such small animals.

Thanks go to Merrill Tawse for so freely sharing his expertise and enthusiasm, and exposing so many people to a side of the nightlife that they'd never otherwise get to see.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Incredible avian aeronautics!

You've absolutely got to see the following video. Anyone who knows birds well knows that Peregrine Falcons are amongst the most amazing flying machines on Planet Earth. Capable of 150 mph+ dives, lightning quick directional changes, and generating G-forces that would cause a fighter pilot to black out, Peregrines are nothing short of amazing.

But so are Northern Goshawks, in their own way. These feathered barbarians are, ounce for ounce, the Ultimate Fighters of the bird world. Few animals of any kind are fiercer, a quality recognized by Attila the Hun who emmblazoned the Goshawk's likeness on his war helmet. The ability of Goshawks to maneuver at high speed through dense cover is remarkable.

The following video comes courtesy of the BBC, and gives the viewer an incredible bird's-eye view of these fabulous predators.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Dragonfly invasion

Common Green Darners, Anax junius. Male (right) holding female as she oviposits eggs into a cattail leaf.

This has been an absolute invasion year for dragonflies in Ohio, and elsewhere in the Midwest. Swarms big and small have been widely reported, some numbering into the thousands of individuals. I had the good fortune of seeing one of these green darner feeding frenzies a few weeks back, in Ross County. Several thousand dragonflies were darting to and fro over meadows along a floodplain, creating a surreal scene.

Stimulated by word of numerous other sightings of migrant darner swarms, I wrote an article that was published in a number of newspapers throughout the state, and that led to even more reports. One of the more interesting came from Kim McCoy, of Fayette County, who witnessed a massive feeding swarm on her property on September 15. Not only that, but she made a video that captures the scene. View the vid RIGHT HERE.

My column, with more info about migrant dragonflies, is below:

Invasion of the Dragonflies

A fantastic insect invasion has been occurring recently. No worries – a plague of locusts hasn’t descended, nor are killer bees overrunning Ohio.

Our visitors are dragonflies: common green darners, Anax junius. Large swarms of these jumbo fliers have been reported from numerous Ohio locales and elsewhere in the Midwest in the past week or so.

Common green darners are easily recognized. They are one of the largest of the 160+ dragonfly species that have been found in Ohio. From stem to stern, a good-sized darner can measure 3 ½ inches, with a wing span of four inches. The thorax (main body) is a distinctive pea green. Males have a turquoise-blue abdomen (tail); in females the abdomen is rusty-brown.

This species is a common inhabitant of Ohio’s ponds and wetlands, and is found in all 88 counties. Like other dragonflies, their larvae – nymphs – are strictly aquatic. The bizarre, alien-looking nymphs remain under water for a year, hunting small animal life. When tripped by some internal alarm clock, the nymph emerges from the water shortly after dusk, climbs a plant, and begins an amazing transformation. The nymph’s husk is slowly split open by the young adult – termed a teneral – as it pushes its way out. Once it has broken free of its larval shell, the teneral darner quickly hardens and expands. By daybreak, the transformation into an adult dragonfly is complete and the green darner is ready to take flight.

And take flight they do. Incredibly powerful flyers, green darners spend much of the daylight hours on the wing, jagging about at impossible speeds as they snatch small flying insects from the air. While gnat-sized bugs form the bulk of their diet, the burly dragons can take down much larger fare. When opportunity allows, they’ll grab large horseflies, bees, and lesser dragonflies. They have even been reported to take hummingbirds!

A big mystery shrouds the common green darner. This is one of our highly migratory insects, as is the monarch butterfly. However, the movements of green darners are not nearly as well understood as those of the monarch, and scientists are still unraveling the secrets of darner migration. In late summer, massive “flocks,” perhaps better called swarms, are sometimes seen. This year, darner swarms have seemingly been more numerous than usual, with many scattered reports.

It is a striking sight to witness hundreds or even thousands of these large dragonflies swirling about. Sometimes they are seen high aloft, moving together on a steady southward trajectory. On other occasions, swarms descend to low levels and actively feed over meadows and other open areas.

Where are they going? No one is sure, but it’s possible that the darners are moving to warmer climes of the southernmost U.S and Mexico. Green darners also appear to migrate back north in the spring, much as birds do.

A lot remains to be learned of dragonfly migration, and observations of large swarms are helpful to researchers. If you have witnessed a dragonfly swarm, please report it to Jim McCormac at the Ohio Division of Wildlife: or 614-265-6440. Please note the date, time, location, and ideally an estimate of the number of dragonflies.

Green Darner, female

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Pleasing Fungus Beetle!

Pleasing Fungus Beetle, Megalodacne fasciata, adorns my door jamb

In what could only be ascribed to the cosmic tentacles of Beetledom reaching through the ether and bestowing Good Karma on me, I walked out my front door almost immediately after making the last post, and saw the above. A Pleasing Fungus Beetle! Its color scheme even closely resembles the Tomentose Burying Beetle that I had just written about.

The trip to Krogers was temporarily tabled, and back inside I rushed, to grab the Panasonic Lumix and photo-document this extraordinary insect. The beetle was attracted to the porch lights, and from time to time I get some interesting critters out there, but this is the first Pleasing Fungus Beetle that I've noticed.

As the name implies, these beetles feed on fungi, especially the fruiting bodies. Apparently the genus Megalodacne, which includes this species, goes for those woody bracket fungi that stick like shelves from stumps and trunks.

Needless to say, I was quite pleased by the appearance of this little beauty.

Tomentose Burying Beetle

A few weeks back, while touring streamside forests along Little Beaver Creek in Columbiana County with Jim Dolan, I noticed a most interesting bug. It had alighted on a downed tree, and I was eager to see what it was. A closer view revealed a good-looking little beast; unfortunately, before I could get around the tree trunk and into an optimal lighting situation, it bolted.

So, the following pics are not of National Geographic quality, but the animal's charms, such as they are, can be seen to a degree.

Tomentose Burying Beetle, Nicrophorus tomentosus. Tomentose = a woolly coating of hairs. Look at that whitish plate over the thorax, and you'll see how this thing got that most unsexy of names. The plate is thickly cloaked in furlike hair; it is tomentose.

This bears repeating. Should you believe in reincarnation, do your homework, and lobby your god for something good, like a Golden Eagle. I could see an entomologically ignorant nature-lover selecting this beetle for their second go 'round, because it is showy and orange and black. But they would probably regret their selection.

The beetle is a looker, but a ghoulish existence comes with the package. They don't call these things burying beetles for nothing. The romantic period of your new burying beetle lifestyle would involve you and the little honey finding a small corpse, preferably a mouse or something similar; a bit on the ripe side, ideally. After you two consummated your relationship, it'd be time to excavate the earth from under your dead mouse, and it ease in into the loam. Your woman would then cast her eggs into the rotting flesh, and you lil chitinous charmers would then conclude covering the body.

Then, when your offspring - juicy little grubs! - hatch, they'd have instant access to decomposing mouse flesh, and thus life begins for the Tomentose Burying Beetle.
I gotta admit, the comblike antennae are pretty cool, but they don't compensate for the culinary choices that the beetle has to make. I'm sure they are effective at picking up the scent of malodorous meat from great distances, though.

A further indignity that you would suffer as a Tomentose Burying Beetle are these pesky orange mites, which can clearly be seen perched on the beetle's back and display an utter disrespect for the halloween-colored bug. They are "hitch-hikers"; the mites don't feed on or otherwise molest the beetle, they merely hop on and get a free ride to the next meal.

The mites feed on fly larvae and perhaps other nasty undertakers of the insect world that are found on carcasses, and what better way to get to your next meal than climb aboard the guy who will ferry you right to it? This mite/beetle relationship is a classic example of commensalism, an arrangement in which one organism benefits (mite) and the other is apparently unaffected (beetle). However, some theorize that the burying beetles actually benefit as well, as the mites apparently don't bother their larvae, and if that's the case, they probably help to kill off the beetle's competitors.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

OOS Annual Conference

The Ohio Ornithological Society's annual conference approaches: October 8 - 10, in Eastlake, Ohio, hard on the shores of Lake Erie. If you are a newer birder, or don't know us well, don't be put off by the O word. Ornithological is synonymous with birding and fun to us, and we have a great time at these affairs. In fact, we want and encourage ALL levels of skills and knowledge to become involved with us.

A fabulous slate of speakers will wow the crowd: Larry Rosche with an overview of the birdlife of northeast Ohio, one of the richest spots for avifauna in the Great Lakes. John Pogacnik on sparrows, one of our most interesting yet underappreciated groups of songbirds. Andy Jones on migration and how birds make the fantastic journeys that they do. Harvey Webster on the dangers of illuminated skyscapers and other structures to migrant birds and what we can do about it.

Finally, Drew Wheelan, point-person for the American Birding Association for the Gulf BP oil gusher, provides the keynote. Drew was - and is - on the front lines and has possibly seen more of this tragedy firsthand than anyone else who has reported on the catastrophe. His program will be a provocative eye-opener. For an interesting read about Drew, visit Ted Eubank's BLOG.

OOS events always feature great field trips, which add tremendously to the logistical headaches for planners but is totally in keeping with our mission of getting people out to see great birds and learn about them. The triangular wedge above is legendary Dike 14, jutting into Lake Erie from the Cleveland shoreline. I took this photo last winter; it'll not be white and cold like this for our conference. Craig Caldwell and I are leading one of the conference field trips here, and we expect scads of sparrows and many other species.

Perhaps the most famous "sea watch" site on the Ohio shore of Lake Erie, the breakwall at Mentor Headlands. We'll be sending a trip there, and who knows that they'll find. The list of species found here is staggering and includes reams of rarities.

The beautiful if not rather squeaky little Bonaparte's Gulls will be starting to mass, and this part of Lake Erie pulls them in by the thousands. They're fun to watch in their own right, but seasoned birders know to pick through the Bonies for goodies such as Little and Black-headed gulls.

The ochre waves of beach grasses at Headlands can be great for sparrow-seeking, and two species of little buff-colored beauts are the main target: Le Conte's and Nelson's sparrows. A few of the OOS excursions will be hitting some of the best places to find these little skulkers anywhere in the state.

I hope that you can make the conference, and if so, I'll look forward to seeing you there. The complete scoop and registration info is RIGHT HERE.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Is Maximilian an alien?

Strait Creek Prairie, Pike County. Owned by the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, and site of one of Ohio's most successful ecological restoration projects, directed by TNC land steward Dave Minney.

This place is one of my favorite sites in the state. It's really off the beaten track, and most people have not seen Strait Creek Prairie, or probably even know that it exists. It's certainly not a drive-by place; one must park by a rural lane and hoof it in. Strait Creek represents the easternmost outlier of the curious Adams County bluegrass province cedar glade prairies, and it's a great place to find rare flora.

Dave, Dan Boone, John Howard and I were there last Saturday to seek out one of the more enigmatic denizens of Strait Creek's many unusual plants. And we found it, although I can't say that the shroud of mystery surrounding this beautiful plant has been dispelled.

Far back in the boondocks, along the sunny edges of a beautifully restored prairie, is a small but vigorous population of one of North America's showiest sunflowers. Regular doses of fire management have stimulated this species and many others to shoot forth in profusion, as burning favors deep-rooted prairie plants and eliminates woody plants that would crowd them out.

Maximilian's Sunflower, Helianthus maximiliani, is a standout in a cast of beauties. Small wonder it is often used in plantings and prairie seed mixtures, which also leads to problems in diagnosing its nativeness.

Unlike many of its brethren, Maximilian's Sunflower even looks good without the luminescent lemon-yellow flowers. The tall, straight stems tower to a not unmanageable height - maybe five feet in the case of a whopper, or at least an indigenous whopper in its native habitat. The leaves are sensational: narrow and folded longitudinally; curved like a sickle.

Even the name is cool. Our protagonist is named for the multisyllabic Prince Alexander Philipp Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied. What a name - sounds like a guy who calls a castle in Austria home! Maximilian was a naturalist and explorer, and discovered his namesake sunflower on a journey up the Missouri River and through the Great Plains in the 1830's.

Another footnote about Maximilian bears mention. He lived to the ripe old age of 85, in a time when 8.5 decades far eclipsed the norm for life spans. This is a really common trend amongst botanists, even those of long ago, I have noticed. Hope it holds true in my case!
In your face flashy, this sunflower can't be missed when in full bloom. Nonetheless, it took us several hours of traipsing through Strait Creek's prairies to finally relocated this patch, which none of us had seen for a long time.

A cuckoo wasp taps a flower, one of many pollinating insects that we observed on Maximilian's Sunflower.

It isn't the identification of this species that is problematic, which certainly is a problem with some of its ilk. No, it is a question of nativeness; does the sunflower have its Ohio papers?

Out of the nearly 1,900 or so native plants in the Buckeye State, precious few present problems in terms of assessing their nativeness, and this is one of them. Maximilian's Sunflower has been collected in at least 20 of Ohio's 88 counties, and there is no doubt that nearly all of these populations are from introduced sources. But one shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water, and thus declare all of the plant's stations to be non-native.
Map of Maximilian's Sunflower distribution, courtesy of the Biota of North America Program. The bright green dots represent native range; blue dots are thought to be non-native populations.

But the area in which we found the sunflower, Strait Creek in Pike County, is a region famed for all of its rare prairie plants, many at their limits of range. At this site, Maximilian's Sunflower is surrounded by native plants, many of them rarities that are quite habitat-specific. Non-natives are few, and there are no other "strange" exotics to offer supporting evidence that perhaps the sunflower became established from plantings of long ago.

On the con side, our sunflower is commonly produced for plantings, but for the most part such a use is probably fairly recent. There was an old homesite, destroyed in the 1970's, not far from the sunflower population. And there is some evidence that transport of hay crops from the west, long ago, may have resulted in unintentional introductions of plants.

While it may be impossible to ascertain with absolute certaintly that this Ohio population of Maximilian's Sunflower is native, I feel that the preponderance of evidence suggests it is.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Common Buckeye

Common Buckeye, Junonia coenia, Pike County, Ohio, September 18th, 2010

This has been a banner year for this immigrant from the south. Buckeyes are seemingly everywhere, and even non butterfly enthusiasts are noting them. As common as the photo opportunities have been this season, I still hadn't managed a very good shot until yesterday.

A few factors work against the shooter of Buckeyes. One, these eye-spotted leps are hyper-vigilant and quite flighty, often darting off rapidly before one can get very near. Two, they often pose in less than desirable situations, such as on the ground, and the background looks terrible.

But this one was nice enough to tee up in a fairly photogenic spot, and allow me a decent photo of one of our more striking butterflies.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake

Today was one of those glorious fall days: azure cloudless skies, a tinge of color blushing the foliage, and crisp early morning temps. The signs of fall and the collapse of the growing season are everywhere.

I was deep in the boondocks of Pike County to meet Dave Minney, land steward for the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. Dave was good enough to take me, along with John Howard and Daniel Boone, into the Strait Creek Prairie preserve. This is a spectacular place, and our primary mission was to find and document one of Ohio's more beautiful - and perplexing - plants. We did, and more on that later.

But as on all forays, many noteworthy plants and animals were catalogued. This little charmer is Bluehearts, Buchnera americana, a rare member of the Figwort Family (Scrophulariaceae).

Juvenile milkweed bug peeks from behind the pod of a Butterfly-weed, Asclepias tuberosa. A much younger animal is in the foreground.

A wooded slope yielded a large stand of Green Violet, Hybanthus concolor, one of our stranger plants. They often flummox newcomers in regards to their ID. The fruit are quite artistic, resembling three tiny dugout canoes fused together. The seeds look like little pearls.

Signs of the impending winter are becoming ever more obvious. Most species of butterflies are really showing wear, and this female Great Spangled Fritillary was badly beaten and faded.

But, above all else I was thrilled to find this Eastern Hog-nosed Snake. They aren't particularly rare in southern Ohio, but one doesn't often find them out and about. Some years I see none; I think my best year I found two.

This is probably my favorite snake, for a variety of reasons. Everything about them is cool: good looks, interesting feeding behavior, and an incredible bluffing game.

Our hognose was just a youth, perhaps a foot ot so in length. As they do when confronted by a possible threat, he froze in place as we came along, but your narrator saw him nonetheless. I quickly dropped to his level to make photos, and again witness the best performance in snakedom. Here, he uses his forked tongue to gauge the invaders. Note its incredibly flattened neck.

Note the hognose's upturned piglike snout - the origin of their name. The snake uses it to dig for prey. And what prey. This is one of few animals that seeks out and dines on toads. Most predators avoid these warty hoppers; the large parotid glands on their back ooze with nasty chemicals that are quite distasteful.

When found, hognoses put on an amazing show. The snake flattens its neck to paper-thin dimensions, raises up and looks all the world like a cobra. It further bolsters its act by hissing, rattling its tail in the vegetation, and launching brutal-looking strikes towards the offending party.

But it is all a bluff. The snake's mouth is normally shut during these scary-looking strikes, and it always - at least in my experience - falls short of its target. But if you didn't know what was what with this reptilian master of deceit, you'd probably get the heck away and fast.

If ACT I fails, and the intruder is not put off by the cobra/rattlesnake charade, the hognose tries a different tack. It rolls over and plays dead. No kidding. The snake twists onto its back, gapes its mouth, lets its tongue hang out, and does its best imitation of roadkill. One can even turn it back upright, and the hognose will promptly roll back over.

Amazing what can be found when out-of-doors.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Ken Druse "Real Dirt" radio interview

Ken Druse is a gardening fanatic, and a well-spoken and interesting advocate for vegetable matter. He has a radio show entitled "Real Dirt" and uses that to interview a wide variety of people on issues related to gardening, and the natural world.

I was his guest on a show back in July, and finally got around to listening to it. We darted and jagged through a variety of topics: native plants, birds, caterpillar damage, dragonflies, and more.

It was fun, and I look forward to being on Ken's show again in a few weeks.

If you would like to hear my interview with Ken, GO HERE.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

White-marked Tussock caterpillar

White-marked Tussock Moth caterpillar, Orgyia leucostigma, feeding on Witch-hazel, Hamamelis virginiana.

A few weekends ago, I had the good fortune to cross paths with one of our more beautiful caterpillars while exploring forests along Columbiana County's Little Beaver Creek. White-marked Tussocks aren't rare; in fact, they are probably one of our more frequent caterpillars. But, caterpillars aren't the easiest things to find, and a bit of serendipity often factors into discoveries.

These things are wackily ornate, with various pencil-brushes, bristling setae, stripes, dots and colors. I was with some people who had never seen a White-marked Tussock and they seemed suitably impressed. They probably would have been less than awed by the adult - the tussock morphs into a bland brown moth that is completely unremarkable.

These cats are tolerant of a diverse diet, and in addition to the Witch-hazel that we found it munching on, they'll snack on a wide variety of woody plants. Remember, butterflies tend to be connoisseurs, finicky and ultra-selective, often only accepting one species of plant for their larval chow line. Moths, well, they're usually garbage-heads. Other appropriate food plants common to the area where I found this bushy little larva are Black Cherry, American Elm, Yellow Birch, Hackberry, and various oaks and hickories. They'll even process Eastern Hemlock, a conifer!

Here's a theory I find fascinating. Those four pencil eraser-like white tufts are thought by some to create the illusion of brachonid wasp cocoons. The theory being that an actively hunting brachonid wasp would see them, and think one of her sisters had already gotten to the caterpillar, and thus would pass it by. This is really great stuff, and I love that sort of deception. But, I don't know that it's true.

But, judge for yourself. This is a Pawpaw Sphinx that I photographed in late summer that was parasitized by brachonid wasps. These wasps lay eggs on the caterpillar, and upon hatching the grublets bore within. Those little white cases are the grub's cocoons; their last stop before transforming into adult wasps. Prior to making these the ghoulish little wrigglers lived inside the caterpillar, eating it from within before popping from its husk like an alien horrorshow.

Look at the real brachonid cocoons, then scroll up and check out the White-marked Tussock.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Black Witch

This is just too cool not to share lickety-split, so here it is - the most amazing moth one could hope for in Ohio. Sort of like finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Photo by Greg Raterman

Moth expert Greg Raterman was baiting nocturnal leps last night in Pickaway County, when this gorgeous monstrosity appeared. Black Witch, Ascalapha odorata! As far as I know, this is the biggest moth to be found north of Mexico, and they are true showstoppers.

I can only imagine Greg's surprise when he checked his moth-baiting operation and found this beast. Like most Black Witches that turn up far to the north of where they ought to be, this one is a female, which has the prominent white scalloped line across the wings. The Black Witch occurs in parts of the Caribbean, and throughout Mexico and Central America and south into South America. They are major rarities this far north, and one shows up in Ohio every few years, perhaps.

Photo by Greg Raterman

Its wings are ornately painted, and when seen well the Black Witch is a thing of beauty. However, not all people consider them welcome, and much superstitious nonsense has come to shroud the moth. A Spanish name for this species is Mariposa de la Muerte, or "butterfly of death". Legend has it that if someone is ill in the casa, and a Black Witch enters, they'll soon die. A better myth has it that if the moth enters a dwelling, flies to all four corners in a room, someone inside dies.

I took this photo a few years back, in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas. Several Black Witches were feeding on oranges set out for orioles, and the fruit offers a size scale, revealing the massive proportions of the moth.

Congratulations to Greg Raterman for an outstanding find, and I thank him for sharing it with us. There are probably some others flying around out there, somewhere - if you see a Black Witch, please let me know.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Chanterelle Waxycap

Glowing like luminescent orange beacons, a cluster of Chanterelle Waxycaps, Hygrocybe cantharellus, is sure to catch the eye. These were shot in the gloomy understory of a Columbiana County forest recently. NOTE: I THINK they're this species, but as always I welcome corrections by those more knowledgeable, especially when I enter a realm that is murky to me.

I like mushrooms, a lot. And wish I knew more about them. Their infinite patterns, textures, and shapes are fascinating. Some, like this chanterelle, are such a delectable color that one wants to snatch them up and shovel them in the old pie-hole.

I wouldn't recommend that. Not unless you are absolutely sure of what fungus it is that you lust for. In the case of chanterelles, at least some authorities recommend avoiding the entire group, or at least the genus Hygrocybe, as apparently none are particularly tasty and some can cause serious damage.

Anyway, 'shrooms make for fabulous photographic subjects. It is like magic, how they spring from the musty detritus of dank forest floors, the impossible climaxes of the vast unseen subterranean world of fungi. Without doubt, the least boring and most outrageous scientific texts are those that deal with mushrooms. In many cases, one might wonder if their authors sampled some of the more mind-bending varieties before taking pen to paper. One can easily excuse these seemingly unscientific excesses - the world of mushrooms seem to demand an alternate approach; certainly not the staid, often BORING take of most botanists.
Eastern Box Turtle, an animal that operates at the level of most mushrooms. Armor-plated and with an equally bullet-proof constitution, these long-lived forest tortoises certainly notice the fungus among us.

And eat them. I caught this one in the act of wolfing down Russula emetica last year in Gallia County; a mushroom that you certainly wouldn't want to consume. One of its common names is The Sickener, which is a two-by-four to the side of the head clue to steer clear of putting this one down the gullet. If you do what Mr. Turtle is doing, you'd soon be sending out unpleasant plumes from both ends.

So, unless you are a box turtle, or an expert on mushrooms, or both, LOOK - don't EAT.