August 31, 2014
Even from behind the steering wheel I could see that the caterpillar crossing the road ahead of me was a whopper. We were on 131 heading north through Mancelona, MI and the pre-labor day traffic was fairly light. I hastily pulled off to the shoulder to get out and snatch the critter from the blacktop but had to wait out an on-coming pack of cars before I could make my grab. Fortunately most of them veered into the left lane as they passed me and therefore missed the caterpillar. The last one, a camper unit, barreled past within the lane and the resulting gush of wind spun the ‘piller around and tumbled it head over heels down the road. I was there to pick it up after the dust cleared and was glad to see that the object of my attention was unhurt.
Although the creature spit up a bunch of defensive green goo into my hand to reward me, my actions were well worth the effort. The glorious three inch creature within my palm was a fantastic looking – yet unknown – type of sphinx larva. I was thinking Galium (Bedstraw) Sphinx but would have said so only if pressed (my wife didn’t press, so my ignorance remained safely concealed). Full identification had to wait until I reached an internet connection. Years ago I would have consulted my tote-along trove of field guides, but modern times require modern means. As it turns out, only this modern means could have provided the answer. Not only was this an imported species but was also a brand new addition to the state list. It was a Spurge Hawk Moth (aka Spurge Sphinx).
A native of Europe and northern Asia, this insect was deliberately introduced to North America to control a pesky plant called the Leafy Spurge. The aggressive Spurge was accidently introduced back in the 1800’s and has had a devastating effect in the western grassland states. It was first recorded in Michigan in the 1880’s. A litany of six insects, including a variety of beetles and a gall midge have been – and still are – being considered as biological control. The Spurge Hawk Moth made the short list and was tapped as part of the first wave of attack on the Leafy Spurge (it’s sole food plant in Europe). Goats are also very good at munching down on leafy Spurge, although they are good at munching down on a great many other things as well. The sphinx is a specialist.
Most of the introductions were in the western states, but there was also one in Ontario a number of years back. Unfortunately, Even though this hawk moth larva is a voracious Spurge eater it appears that it has had little real effect. At the very least it provides a colorful new member of our local fauna and one which, more importantly, doesn’t compete with any native insect.
The first recorded sighting of the Spurge Hawk Moth in Michigan, according to the MSU extension site, was on June 10, 2013. That individual was an adult captured in the Grand Traverse area. Some more larvae were spotted a month later in Leelanau County. This summer another blogger reported a caterpillar west of Gaylord. Antrim County, the location of my find, is in the same general area as the previous sightings but indicates a slow but steady expansion of range. By virtue of its late summer timing it also proves that these insects are double brooded in this state. I guess my posting makes for the forth “official” record and a spot on the meaningless achievement hall of fame podium!
The Spurge Sphinx larva does look very much like the Galium Sphinx and certain varieties of the White-lined Sphinx but tops both in sheer gaudiness. The horn and head are scarlet, and the rest of the body is speckled with black, red, and white markings befitting a “radical” snowboard or fashionable scarf design. Perhaps this is why it has chosen the trendy Grand Traverse area for its step into society!
The reason this gaily patterned sphinx was crossing the road, unlike the famous chicken of joke fame, was to get to the pupation side. It appears to be a full sized individual. Younger larvas are darker and each instar has a differing color pattern. From what I can tell this fellow was ready to take the next step. For now the caterpillar resides in a dirt-filled Styrofoam coffee cup prepared as a pupation chamber. It will, assuming it behaves in line with virtually all sphinx caterpillars, burrow down into the sand, split its layer of bright attire, and convert into a sleek pupa. There it will stay until emerging next spring as a third generation Michigander.
August 25, 2014
Second nature: natural observations made with little effort and requiring little explanation. While nature appreciation should be second nature in the true definition of the term, it can also consist of observations made within a short period time. Ideally nature study should not be constrained by time but the real world demands otherwise (assuming you are a participant in the real world). So, the challenge is to see what we can see given the time we have to see it. Sometimes literally seconds are all we get, but that often can be enough.
Because of a busy week (including the birth of a grand child) I was limited to short term ramblings in my back yard and thus the birth of this “second nature” segment. There will be more.
I came upon two wasp-mimic moths within a few minutes and a few feet of each other. They were hanging about on the vegetation bordering the yard. These creatures are unusual in several respects. As moths, they are double weirdoes. Most moths are creatures of darkness which fly and feed by night. Aided by the protection of camouflage they rest by day. Wasp mimics are daytime fliers who blatantly call attention to themselves. They display wasp features such as narrow, partially or wholly transparent wings, and spastic type behavior.
The Virginia Creeper Clearwing (see above) is a middle-sized moth whose dark coloration gives it the appearance of a paper wasp. When approached it raised its abdomen, as if to present a “stinger,” and twitched both yellow tipped antennae as if to say “I, sir, am a wasp and you will not bother me or else…)”. The threat is implied subtly because most predators require little in order to be convinced that an easier meal is to be sought elsewhere. This façade quickly breaks down upon a closer look which reveals a very moth-like face, fully scaled set of forewings, and a harmless behind. As a larva the Clearwing bores into the roots of Virginia Creeper. Oddly enough the species name is Albuna fraxini. The species portion of that name (the second half) refers to Ash trees even though the thing apparently has no relationship with ash trees whatsoever.
A few feet over, I came upon a spritely little Maple Callus Borer (see above). In the same family as the Virginia Creeper Clearwing, this species sports completely clear fore and underwings ornamented with scaled stripes. Both the common and scientific names are appropriate in this case. It too is a youthful borer whose larvae feed upon the cambium layer of maple bark. The species name acerni means “of maple wood” and the common name details the larva’s propensity to burrow near tree wounds (and thus creating more calluses).
The most distinctive feature of the Maple Callus Borer is the scarlet tuft at the end of its slender abdomen. This spritely little day flier seems to hop about as if propelled by these imaginary rocket flames.
August 17, 2014
I’m pretty sure that women don’t like the phrase “honey-do” list. It universally implies a litany of “bothersome” husband oriented tasks, assigned by an “overbearing” wife, nearly always involving tools, sweat, and “easy” weekend projects such as replacing a patio and building a new one. I am not here to argue the merits of this phrase, or lack-of same, because I am one of those husband type people looking at his 35th…er, 36th year of marriage and would like to celebrate our 37th. No, I am here to present another type of honey-do list which is performed exclusively by, and pretty much only for, females. There are no delicate issues to dance around on this one. I’m talking about aphid farming, ya’ll.
Many species of ant engage in livestock farming. The activity is performed exclusively by the female workers for the purpose of maintaining and harvesting Honey Dew for what is basically an all female colony (the male drones only enter the scene later). The gang of black ants living in my…excuse me, our (sorry honey) yard at Dollar Lake are so engaged in this pastoral pursuit. Their pasture consists of a small bushy Balm of Gilead tree about ten feet from their door and about 50 feet from ours.
The cattle in this farm setting are aphids, aka plant lice. These sucking insects feed on the sugary plant sap. Because this fluid is low in essential Nitrogen, they must consume a whole lot of it in order to gain the essential amount of this chemical. This means that much of the sugar is excreted as waste – aka sweet pee or honey dew.
The sweet-loving ants harvest this crop in the manner of a dairy farmer milking his/her herd, although the details differ. Individuals will approach the hinder end of a fat little plant louse and tap it with their antennae. The aphid is thus prompted to produce a juicy bead of honey dew in response. This nectar the ant eagerly drinks and eventually transfers to other ants in the colony.
The ants are, for lack of a better name, Black Ants. I must resort to this generic description because I do not know the exact species. Of course I did not name the aphid species, but no one seems to care about that. Unfortunately, most folks don’t ask about ant types either. This is not a good thing, but I must not be hypocritical here. Except for Carpenter ants, Wood ants, and Auntie Em, my knowledge of ant species has remained fixed since a child. Back then there were only two ants in the world; black ants and red ants. One fought the other and that was that. Given that there are well over 12,000 species of ants in the world I suppose I could be forgiven for passing over this part of the discussion for the sake of the presenting the bigger picture.
This basic aphid/ant interaction certainly benefits the ants. At times it may seem like a one-sided interaction because a few of the aphids occasionally serve as meals on wheels. Just like human dairy farmers who regularly send some of their animals to slaughter, ant farmers eat a few of their aphid charges from time to time. The aphid colony, in spite of these occasional individual sacrifices, do ultimately benefit from this arrangement. Beyond performing the obvious waste disposal service (preventing fungus formation in certain cases) the ants serve as shepherds. They vigorously protect their precious aphids from wandering predators such as ladybug larvae and wasps. In other words, more aphids survive under antcare than without. Since both sides benefit, this type of plus-plus interaction is called mutualism (or symbiosis if you prefer).
I stand on the shoulders of others – or under their feet – when it comes to explaining the realities of aphid farming. I can claim little more than observing big insects surrounding clusters of tiny weak ones. Researchers have spent long hours investigating this phenomenon. One of the more fascinating aspects, involving the use of chemicals agents, was investigated by a team from Imperial College London, Royal Holloway University, and the University of Reading. Not only do some ants keep their charges in line by physically moving and herding aphids, but they also lay down chemicals with their feet that act as invisible fences. Aphids attempting to cross over these chemical fences were observed to significantly slow down as if they were treading on fly paper. There is also some evidence that other “semiochemicals” exuded by the ants prevent mature aphids from sprouting wings and flying away (which is how aphid colonies spread).
Such a complex interaction, taking place but a few yards from my door, is worthy of much more discussion but I must end it for now. You see I have a few honeyd….er, things that I must attend to.
August 9, 2014
Epidomax flycatchers, fall warblers, and immature birds are the bane of any birder’s existence. Lack of distinctive markings or “Jekyll and Hyde” seasonal plumage traits are enough to drive one into madness. Yet, because birders already live on the fringe of madness they accept, and even thrive upon, such challenges. Splitting feathers is both an occupational hazard and an essential part of the game. Since I avoid fall warblers like the plague and look the other way when any small greenish flycatcher shows up, I am left to deal with those immature birds.
Basically full grown in size, yet lacking full adult plumage, immature birds are like unfinished paintings of the birds they represent. True to the term they represent young birds not ready for prime time. Depending on the species these can range from hatching year birds which convert within a season (perching birds, woodpeckers, ducks, etc. ) to those taking several years to attain full plumage (eagles and gulls, for example). Often these young birds have the general adult look in terms of size and profile but are attired in a different cloth.
I have offered examples of young Pied-billed Grebes, Red-headed Woodpeckers (see above left) and Turkeys (see above right) in previous posts. Of these, the Pied-billed immature (see below) takes the cake in terms of taking on a radically different look from the parent (in other words the one that looks suspiciously more like the mailman than the husband).
This time, I’d like to present two additional immature examples just for the sake of discussion. The first is a well-named woodpecker and the second a very familiar duck. Let’s look at the duck first.
While at the Bay City State Park Waterfowl Festival I decided to walk one of the nature trails. Volunteers had previously set out various duck decoys in the water adjacent to the trial route as part of a duck I.D. activity that originated at the festival. There were numbered stations and numerous floating decoy examples which required identification. Closing in on one station I saw a few mallard decoys in the water and another, a less-than-convincing female Wood Duck, cunningly perched on the limb of a downed tree arching over them.
Soon, I noticed several other “woodies” scattered about on the tree trunk just above the level of the duckweed covered marsh. Again, all were in un-finished condition. The male birds especially lacked the brilliant hues and crest of adult Wood Ducks. The uppermost decoy took me aback when it bobbed its head and shifted pose. It turned out that she, and her fellow ducks, were real flesh and blood Wood Ducks after all. I could only see two of them clearly but there were at least six of them.
From the time they leap from their nest hole, young Wood Ducks are constantly attended by their mother. The adult female sticks with her brood for at least 4 weeks – after which the bond slowly dissolves and the young are left to fend for themselves. They take about 6-8 weeks to fully fledge and hang together as a unit for an extended time. My living decoys represented birds fresh into their motherless phase of life and well on their way to independence.
The scattered universe of head speckles on the immature female (see above) were in the process of congealing into a clear white eye ring. Her breast speckles were starting to arrange themselves into the neat ranking of adulthood. Otherwise she looked very mature for her age (isn’t that always the case!).
The male bird, on the other hand, was still in the dork stage (see above). His white chin straps were barely defined against the fuzzy pale brown head feathers. There was only a hint of a crest present and the flanks were still dark. This bird did have the beautiful red eyes and a wonderfully ornamented black, pink and white bill that would later define him as among the most beautiful of waterfowl.
My encounter with a woodpecker of unknown species was of a much shorter duration than the woodie encounter. Had I not snapped a few quick shots before the thing returned to obscurity in the nearby woods, I would have been left clueless (more than normal that is). Before me was a speckled medium-sized woodpecker with a brown head.
It took a while to figure out that this sleek little fellow was an immature Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. In retrospect (thanks to the miracle of photography), I could see that the distinctive white shoulder stripe – a defining mark for adult Sapsuckers – was present. The color of the head and upper shoulders was purple brown. Black was gradually replacing the brown areas from back to front like ink bleeding across wet paper. There was nary a trace of any red head markings on the head. It seems that this part of the plumage (males are identified by their red throats), along with the yellow belly, develops last and so this bird will remain a genderless little sapsucker for now.
By the time the migration season begins in late September, both the woodies and the sucker will be properly attired according to their sex and species. I will not recognize these fuzzy headed youth when they return in the spring resplendent with full coloration and the bloom of maturity.
August 3, 2014
It is easy to imagine the inner working of a squirrel’s mind. They can be excused for being continually distracted because nuts must certainly dominate their thinking. Why else would they stop in the middle of a street in the midst of heavy traffic? “Nuts, cars, danger, nuts, nuts, nuts, cars, nuts…” is not a healthy thought pattern (and one that usually ends tragically after the fourth “nut.”).
It is unfair, of course, to pursue this line of reasoning. Squirrels are multidimensional being – not as fascinating and deep as wolves or chimpanzees perhaps, but complicated in their own way. They are not all about nuts and would likely go nuts eating nothing but nuts. During the summer, when nuts are scarce, they become fungal connoisseurs and actively seek mushrooms.
Given that many of the top chefs in the world are fungal connoisseurs and are well respected for it, our bushy-tailed rodent friends are certainly worthy of elevated human perception. I wonder how many great chefs have been hit by cars when pondering culinary thoughts and ignoring traffic? This would be worth investigating. But I diverge.
The mushrooming skills exhibited by the local Grey Squirrels are something to behold. They eagerly devour any ‘shroom that dares to poke its gilled head above the ground and, I must say, look refreshed while doing it. I wouldn’t dare suggest that mushrooms often have a nutty taste lest any nearby squirrel goes postal at the mere mention of the word “nut” (at least in the month of July and August).
I am unwilling to taste the mushrooms that the Greys are currently harvesting in my yard. I therefore will not have to put myself in the position of declaring their nut-like taste. By general appearance they seem to be members of the Russula family. This large fungal group runs the gamut from being highly edible to bland to poisonous in terms of human consumption. The mushrooms in this squirrel discussion are gilled and have large reddish caps, easily crumbled, which are somewhat turned up at the edges on larger specimens. These caps are sticky and shiny when wet and often have pine needles or detritus sticking to them. Overall, this description matches that of the Blackish-Red Russulas (by the way, this is their actual species name and not one I just made up). It’s probably not worth mentioning, but this species is not poisonous but relatively inedible due to its “acrid taste.”
Our taste is has nothing to do with squirrel taste. Oddly enough, squirrels have no aversion to poisonous mushrooms so this is a moot point when it comes to edibility. One species of Russula, the Emetic Russula, is quite poisonous to humans but is eagerly eaten by Red Squirrels without effect (well, other than leaving them with a sense of satisfaction).
There are several color varieties of mushroom-eating Grey Squirrels about. All are the same species, but several are black and one is a “normal” reddish brown grey squirrel (or is it a blackish-red grey squirrel?). There is no particular modus operandi when attacking mushrooms, although they seem to go for the caps. One of them hung upside-down while devouring his prize while yet another served it up on the ground. It held the outer edge of the cap like a wheel and took bites out of the rim as it rotated. Sometimes they will simply take a few bites out of a standing mushroom and leave it in place.
I’m not sure why, but these fellows never seem to finish a whole mushroom. Often they’ll drop one, half consumed, and then move on to other things. I suppose it could be due to a mental distraction – perhaps feeling the sudden urge to cross a road or stopping to check the status of the ripening crop of nuts, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. It is probably due to the sheer abundance of the fungal treats and is equivalent to an overindulgent child leaving the pizza crust.
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