Monthly Archives: December 2011

Moth fly

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Hope everyone had a great holidays! I’m a little late with this week’s post as a result of my own. I’m digging back into the archives again for this one. I spent some time this fall helping my sister and her boyfriend out with a bit of house and yard work. I happened across this little guy while scraping old paint from exterior trim; he was sitting right next to the frame so I wouldn’t miss him.

It’s a moth fly, a member of the family Psychodidae, a group of flies whose hairy bodies and long antennae give them the look of moths. I was absolutely delighted by this find; I’d seen the photos of moth flies in my Kaufman Field Guide to Insects and kept watching for one, unsuccessfully.

Moth flies are pretty small, only a 1/4″ (1/2 cm) long at most (some are only a third that length). They favour wet habitats, and apparently can become nuisance pests in kitchens, where their preference for sink pipes lends them another of their common names, drain flies. The larvae eat algae and bacteria that are growing in the damp environment of the drainpipe (or other more natural situations); adults are nectar-feeders. Because they utilize habitats in human homes, they can be encountered at any time of year.

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There are 113 species in North America, but some 3000 worldwide. A particular subfamily are blood-suckers and can transmit diseases, but the ones found in your home are generally harmless. In fact, the larvae of some moth fly species are actually useful and important in the purification process of sewage treatment plants.

I’m pretty sure this one is Clogmia albipunctata, for which BugGuide gives the common name Filter Fly. BugGuide notes that the species used to be primarily tropical but is now found through much of North America.

Happy Holidays!

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Wishing you good company, good cheer, good food and good hiking. :)

Biothon beetles

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Remember back in the summer I did a biothon in support of Frontenac Bird Studies? I wrote one post for it, but I never did get around to returning to the rest. And since I had selected and edited 48 photos from it, that left quite a few photos unused. I thought I’d revisit some of these over the winter.

Here’s the first, and possibly my favourite, of the outstanding photos. Dan brought me this guy back from a hike he and the other participants had gone on; it’d been in one of my moth containers for a little bit, so it got a bit rubbed up. But it was still pretty clear to see that this was a FUZZY YELLOW BEETLE. Yes, it was just that cool that it requires all-caps.

[Edit: I’ve been corrected by the fabulously knowledegable Ted of Beetles in the Bush. The beetle is not, in fact, a bumble bee scarab, but rather another type of scarab in the genus
Trichiotinus, sometimes called hairy flower scarabs or bee-like flower scarabs. Ted suggests that while members of this genus do have a fair bit of “fur”, much of what’s on this beetle is actually debris, with pollen giving it the bright yellow colour. Thanks Ted! The info below still applies to bumble bee scarabs… just not to my beetle.]

As always, my fabulous Kaufman Field Guide to Insects (go buy a copy if you don’t already own one!) provided me with its ID. It’s a bumble bee scarab, family Glaphyridae. There’s only one genus in this family found in North America, Lichnanthe, containing eight species. The common eastern species on BugGuide.net is Lichnanthe vulpina, which goes by the common name Cranberry Root Grub for its larvae’s habit of feeding on – surprise – cranberry roots. BugGuide says it’s primarily in eastern coastal states, but we do have cranberry around here, too, so I don’t know. Adults seem to be bumblebee mimics and visit flowers during the day. I can’t find much other info on it.

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Another beetle! I’ve got at least half a dozen beetles to share, but I’ll stick to these two for this post. This one’s much easier to figure out: it’s a net-winged beetle, family Lycidae, by the interesting pattern of raised veins on the wings; and it’s Calopteron discrepens by the way the vertical black bar joining the upper black band to the thorax widens as it reaches the thorax (another lookalike, C. reticulatum, remains the same width).

There are five species in this genus, all restricted to the north and east. The KGI suggests that some members of this family feed on honeydew from aphids, though I don’t know if it’s true for this species. Other species seem to feed on nectar from flowers.

Another species, C. terminale, lacks the upper black band. There’s a species of moth, the Black-and-yellow Lichen Moth, Lycomorpha pholus, that looks nearly identical except that it’s wings are smooth, lacking the raised veins, and its antennae don’t have the saw-teeth. And, y’know, it’s a moth, not a beetle. :) The black and orange patterning of these beetles is probably aposematic (warning predators that they’re distasteful or toxic), in which case the moth would benefit through mimicry.

Not a beetle:

8087 - Lycomorpha pholus - Black-and-yellow Lichen Moth

Book tour update

Just a quick post to provide an update on the book tour! I’ve got a number of dates set now, and some others that look likely. Here’s the schedule of set and probable dates and locations:

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Red dates are confirmed or probable; I’m trying to set up something for teal dates; brown date is the New River Birding and Nature Festival (paid event); navy date is my day off to visit a couple friends in the area. :) A few of these are subject to final confirmation and may change; I’ll post the definitive schedule in a few weeks once I know.

April 29 – Detroit, MI area

April 30 – Columbus, OH area (The Nature Conservancy Ohio)

May 1 – Wheeling, WV (Good Zoo at Oglebay Resort)

May 2-5 – New River Birding and Nature Festival, WV (closed/paid event)

May 5 – if anyone is interested in an event in eastern KY, western VA or southwestern WV, let me know; it may be possible to arrange an event on May 5

May 6 – Richmond, VA area

May 7 – Davis, WV (Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge)

May 8 – Millersburg, PA (Ned Smith Center for Nature & Art)

May 9 – Hockessin, DE (Ashland Nature Center; Delaware Nature Society)

May 10 – East Brunswick, NJ (Playhouse 22, Friends of the East Brunswick Environmental Commission)

No event on May 11.

May 12 – Athol, MA (Athol Bird and Nature Club)

May 13 – Ithaca, NY

Along came a spider

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Late last week we received a visit from this spider, which Dan discovered on the silverware in the drying rack while he was washing dishes. I gather it appeared out of nowhere and caught Dan quite by surprise, not least of all because of its size. Though it’s mostly all leg, it’s still impressively large. He carefully saved it in the fridge for me, and I did my best to push aside my squeamishness over spiders (one of the few groups of invertebrates I get that way around) to take a few photos. I moved him out to our woodshed once I was done, where I felt his presence was more appropriate.

The spider is male, which I could immediately tell by the two short, round projections at its front; these are its pedipalps, which are modified mouthparts the male spiders use to transfer sperm packets from their own abdomen to the female spider during mating, so females don’t have them. Considering that female spiders are most often noticeably larger the males, it left me wondering just how big the females of this species must be.

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I didn’t know the species right away, despite the size of this guy, and so spent a while flipping through pages on BugGuide. For all that I can ID our local birds with a glance or quickly guess the families, if not the species, of most of the moths and butterflies and dragonflies I encounter, when it comes to spiders and some other groups of insects I’m back to being a novice again. My identification method usually becomes scanning the photos associated with each family, looking for something that might be similar. Usually I end up checking out half a dozen families, sometimes more, looking for a photo of an individual that seems to match mine. Most of the time I can reach an ID, though it can be time-consuming.

Despite what would seem to be a very distinctive individual, given the size and those bristly legs and the interesting rayed-circle pattern on the thorax, I didn’t come up with a conclusive identification for this guy; but I’m leaning toward Cross Orbweaver, Araneus diadematus.

Normally I think of the orbweavers as having huge, spherical abdomens, so the family didn’t immediately cross my mind for this one. But it’s the females that look like that; the males are slimmer. What prompted me to check that family for photos was the short third pair of legs. I’ve come to think of this as a defining feature of the orbweaver family, but I can’t see anything to say that’s true. Defining or not, it is still a feature, however; those shorter third legs are modified for use in building the stereotypical spiderwebs the group is known for.

Araneus diadematus - Garden Spider

Araneus diadematus - Garden Spider by Camponotus Vagus, on Flickr; CC-licensed

The Cross Orbweavers are a very big species; BugGuide gives the average measurement as 13mm (1/2″), and that’s just the body. Once you add legs to that, you’ve got an impressively large spider. Check out this male and female of the species, above, then compare to my top image with average-sized butterknife. As I checked out the page for the species, I recalled some massive female orbweavers that hung around the covered walkway along the back of our house, where I set out my moth trap. I unfortunately seem not to have taken any photos of them, so I can’t be sure they were the same species.

Araneus diadematus

Araneus diadematus by Astroblue, on Flickr; CC-licensed

The Cross Orbweaver’s name comes from the white cross on its abdomen, which my spider lacks; the species is variable, however, and I’m not sure whether the lack of a cross on mine is due to the variability of the species, or the fact that I’ve misidentified it. ;)

The records on BugGuide are nearly all late summer and fall, right into November for Ontario. It’s only found in northeastern and western North America; like so many of our species, it’s a European introduction. It goes by the name European Garden Spider in its native range and is, unsurprisingly, a common resident of gardens.

I gather orbweavers are very docile spiders, slow to bite, and with a preference for flight rather than fight. I did in fact have some trouble getting this one to sit still for me, but I had no inclination to put out my hand to stop him. It’s not that I fear being bitten – the bite is supposedly no more painful than a bee sting – as much as it is just the creep factor of having a spider walking over me. If this was a moth, however, or a beetle or praying mantis or walking stick, no problem. But just can’t do with with a spider.

One last interesting fact: orbweavers are mostly nocturnal. During the day they’ll either hang out on their web, or in a bit of cover such as a rolled-up leaf nearby, only coming out to immobilize trapped prey. At night they return to their web, rebuilding any damaged sections. A few species actually ingest the remains of the old web and build an entirely new one from scratch. I recall watching one of the large females actively building a web one evening while I was checking my moth sheet, though whether she was repairing or building fresh I couldn’t say.

Smooth Green Snake

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I admit I find November a rather uninspiring month, nature-wise. So barren, so still. So I’m going to go back into my archives and pull out a subject I’ve been hoarding since June. Can you see him in this photo?

I nearly missed him myself, that day. It was on one of our MAPS visits to our Blue Lakes site, and I was just preparing to go check the nets when I happened to notice… something… in the grass that made me pause and take a closer look. And the something turned out to be a snake. He wasn’t moving, I hadn’t seen him slide into that spot; it must just have been the wide pale stripe of his belly that caught my eye.

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It turned out to be a Smooth Green Snake, Liochlorophis vernalis. This is the first (and so far only) individual I’ve seen of this species, and I was pretty excited. I’m not sure why I’ve never seen one before; according to the Ontario herpetological atlas they’re not uncommon and can be found throughout southern Ontario below Sudbury. Interestingly, though, they do seem to be more frequently found along the edge of the Canadian Shield and in a few clustered spots like the Bruce Peninsula or the southern part of the Niagara Escarpment. Since our MAPS sites are Shield edge, perhaps that explains why my first one was there.

In any case, I’d never seen one before, so I spent some time studying this guy. He did this interesting thing where he held his body upright like this, stiffly, and every now and then waved back and forth a little bit. I wasn’t sure whether he was trying to camouflage himself by pretending to sway in the wind like a piece of grass (even though there was no breeze that day) or if by moving back and forth he could get a better sense of where we were relative to him. He continued doing this even once he finally left the grasses and slithered out onto the open rock, so I’m inclined to think the latter. We took a few videos of the behaviour; here’s one:

 

Smooth Green Snakes eat mostly invertebrates, though I think they’re opportunistic enough they wouldn’t turn down a small vertebrate like a salamander or spring peeper, should they come across one. I’ve been calling this one a he, but I don’t actually know the sex. If it were actually a female, she might have been looking for a place to lay her eggs, which they may do anytime from June to late summer. They deposit the 4 to 6 inch-long eggs in a soft, protected spot like a pile of rotting vegetation or wood, and these hatch in 4 to 23 days.

I found the 4 days figure rather startling; I gather that a few rare individuals may retain the eggs inside their body till near to hatching, and would guess that’s more likely what’s happening with the 4 day situation. I can’t really see any vertebrate going from zygote to hatched in only four days.

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I left the snake while it was still in the grass, but Dan sat and watched it for a while. Eventually it came out and crawled across the rocks toward him, slipping under our data binder and appearing out the other side before disappearing again into the grass on the other side of the rocks. They’re supposedly fairly docile snakes, slow to bite, but we didn’t try catching him. It was enough just to enjoy watching him where he was.

Sunday Snapshots: First snow

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These are actually from a week and a half ago, and were taken by Dan on his morning walk. I think I’ve documented the first snow of the last few years; it seemed a shame to miss this year, since it was such a spectacular arrival. There was nothing when darkness fell the night before, but at least three inches of the white stuff by the time dawn arrived.

Unrelated: the book tour is filling up fast. Thanks to everyone who’s either contacted me or passed on the info to groups in your area! I’m still open to potential dates in southern Michigan, Virginia and/or Delaware if you live in these areas or know a possible nature center or organization that might be interested in hosting an event.

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