The bold and the beautiful

Raven and I enjoying the spring weather

We’ve had a string of beautiful weather the last few days. Mild temperatures, jacket optional, no toque required. Sunday was by far the nicest, though. A repeat photo of Saturday’s, only better. Note the shoved-up sleeves, bare head. I could probably even have ditched the vest and been fine. Although the thermometer suggested it was warmer today, Sunday afternoon the sun was shining and there was a lovely warm breeze blowing – you know, the sort that caresses your skin, rather than nipping at it. It really felt like a small gift from April, a promise of things to come.

greenbottle fly

The temptation was enough to get the boldest of the insects out of bed for a look-see. Although I still didn’t see many out in the fields or woods, there were quite a number climbing up the west side of the house in the afternoon. Most numerous by far were the flies. As far as I could tell, there were two types – the greenbottle above, and a gray one that might have been the same species I photographed in March last year, though I didn’t get a photo of the latter to be able to confirm.

Polistes paper wasp

I saw a couple of Polistes paper wasps, probably P. fuscatus, the Northern Paper Wasp. I wrote a bit about the life cycle of paper wasps in one of my early posts here, a little over two years ago now. The colony spends the whole summer growing in size in order to eventually produce a crop of new queen wasps in the fall. These young queens mate and then overwinter, while the old queen and all the workers die at the end of the fall. Come spring, the wasps you see emerging are these mated queens, looking to start new colonies. They’ll find a good spot (old nests are never reused) and start building a new nest, laying eggs and provisioning the developing young themselves until enough workers have grown up to be able to take over the duties.

spider

Spiders have been everywhere. They’re so far the only invertebrate I’ve seen active out in the meadows. I’ve seen a few species, and I don’t know what any of them are. I don’t think they’re the same ones I saw on the snow in the winter, but I could be wrong about that. They skitter over the grasses and dead vegetation, and they were dashing about on the foundation of the house. Just little small guys, less than half a centimetre (1/4″) long.

I also saw a Boxelder Bug on the foundation, but it disappeared around a corner and I couldn’t relocate it. I’ve encountered these guys before, on a maple tree at my parents’ old house. At the time I noted that they supposedly would invade homes to find overwintering sites the same way that ladybugs do, but I’d never seen them indoors. Still haven’t, but at least the one this weekend was actually on the house.

9881 - Homoglaea hircina - Goat Sallow

Both Saturday and Sunday I was tempted into putting out my mercury vapour lamp to see if there were any moths out and about, woken up by the spring-like character of the day. (When Dan asked what I’d been doing outside and I told him, he said “You really like moths, don’t you? I mean, you don’t just like them, you really like them.” Yes, yes I do.) Saturday wasn’t quite warm enough, and I didn’t get anything. I brought the bulb inside after a couple hours. Sunday, however, I had three – three! – moths come to the house. And not just little micro guys, either. These were all macromoths, big species at least as large as your thumbnail. (Hey, in the world of moths, that counts as large).

The one above was the very first one to arrive. It’s one of the beautiful chunky sallows I was hoping for. In fact, this one was a new species for me. It’s a Goat Sallow, Homoglaea hircina, a species of the northern woods – the Carolinian, Great Lakes-St Lawrence, and Boreal forests (I haven’t mapped this one yet, but I’m getting really good at interpreting written range descriptions…) – where its caterpillars feed on aspen and poplars. It’s a super-early flyer, the overwintering adults out and about in March and April, as soon as the snow starts melting back from the ground. So not a surprise to see it, and perhaps funny that I hadn’t encountered it before.

9915 - Lithophane grotei - Grote's Pinion

And the second moth here is a Grote’s Pinion. This one’s found through most of the northeast, and feeds on a variety of tree species. They’re usually encountered among the last of the moths in the fall, and again with the first of the moths in the spring. Like the Goat Sallow, they overwinter as adults and are quick to take advantage of warm weather.

The third moth I saw fluttering in the eaves of the front porch overhang, but wasn’t able to relocate it when I came back with my long-handled butterfly net to try to reach it.

Judging from the weather forecast, that looks like it might be it for moths for at least the next week or so. A tantalizing hint of things to come!

Spring on the air

Enjoying the sunshine

As forecasted, it was a lovely mild day today. The sun was shining brightly in a clear sky, and there was hardly a breath of wind. You could almost smell the scent of promised spring on the air. This same weekend last year we had a mild spell, as well. It wasn’t quite as warm as last year’s, but it was still a beautiful day to be outside. I walked with Raven to the back of the property, through the open fields where I could luxuriate in the warmth of the sun.

I stopped and checked out the open patches under the trees and around rocks, where the snow was already melted and the ground exposed, looking to see if there were any insects out and about today. I found none, although I did see quite a few spiders, little tiny black ones that skittered over the folded blades of grass, gone from sight practically even before being seen. It’s still a bit early for insects, really. My first good day of insects was March 17 last year.

At the back of the property it gets a bit Shield-y, with juniper shrubs and small bare rock domes. One of these spots, alongside a clump of cedar, has a great flat-sided rock that’s perfect for leaning up against and enjoying the sun. I spent some time there before heading back to the house. I probably didn’t even need the toque today, except you know if you leave it behind then the wind will pick up and your ears will be feeling nipped by the time you get back inside.

Last year, that night we had a moth come in to our outdoor light, the first one of the year. This evening I put my moth light out at dusk, just on the off chance that the warm afternoon sun had stirred anyone out of their winter slumber. I might not have bothered had we not had the handful turn up at the porch lights earlier in the week, since it was slightly cooler today than last year. I turned it off again after an hour or two with no moths.

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Speaking of moths. The fabulous (if I do say so myself) blog carnival The Moth and Me starts up again this month after a winter hiatus to allow the moths a chance to rest. The host for March will be Jason of Xenogere. Pick your favourite moth (or moth caterpillar) themed post from the last few months (or earlier, if you don’t have anything recent – which may be the case for many of us more northern folk), and send it to Jason (Jason -at- xenogere -dot- com) before March 13 (just one more parentheses just ’cause).

Monday Miscellany

Country road in spring

It’s amazing just how fast the trees leaf out once they start. Just two weeks ago I was noting the late afternoon sun glowing through the sprinkling of leaves on the saplings across the road from the house. Now, I can barely make out the neighbour’s house, which was so apparent in winter. By June, I won’t be able to see it at all. All manner of plant life has greened up or is hard at work at it. Some shrubs are completely leafed out, while the tall ash trees are only just starting. Like the creeks that start tumbling over their rocky beds at spring melt, once spring arrived, time seems to have picked up speed and is rushing by.

Blue Jay

We’ve had a fair bit of rain over the course of the last week. It seems to have gotten all the wet out of its system now, however, and we’re forecasted to have mostly clear skies the rest of the week (whether it remains that way remains to be seen). Although all that rain was undoubtedly part of the reason behind the green explosion, the animals were less than happy about it. This Blue Jay, for instance, was looking a bit bedraggled as it visited the feeders one afternoon.

Mink Frog

The rain has made the ground near our dock rather soggy. As Dan was flipping his boat over one day last week to try to locate a leak that had gotten worse over the winter, he disturbed this guy from the pool of water around the boat. I spent a lot of time debating the identity of this guy. The bright green upper lip and speckled underbelly should make it easy to ID, I figured. I think that it’s a Mink Frog, Rana septentrionalis, but it could also be a Green Frog, Rana clamitans. I couldn’t figure out a definitive ID characteristic that would rule one out based on the photos I have. A Mink Frog would be a “lifer” for me, a species that I’d never encountered previously. In Ontario they tend to be found further north than the GTA where I grew up, but we’d be at the southern edge of their range, here. They’ve been recorded over in the Park. I’m leaning toward Mink because of the small eardrums, dorsal ridges that terminate halfway down the back, and lack of strong barring on the back legs, but I get the impression these are all somewhat variable features.

Water bug, Belostoma sp.

Before Dan flipped over his boat, he bailed out some of the water. And sitting in the water was this guy. I believe it’s a water bug in the genus Belostoma. It was rather large, about an inch long, and quite active within the container Dan had scooped it into. This group of water bugs are among those where the female lays her eggs on the male’s back in the spring. He “broods” the eggs, keeping them clean of fungus, protecting them from predators, and making sure they’re well oxygenated (by doing “push-ups” at the surface of the water). I’m not sure if the lack of eggs on this one means it’s a female, or just a male that hasn’t been laid on yet. I did notice, however, in examining the photos on my computer, that it’s sporting a bunch of red mites.

Bolitotherus cornutus

I found this strange beetle clinging to a piece of driftwood beside my moth trap one morning. I wasn’t sure if it was alive, as it fell off the wood when I touched it, and sat with its legs curled under it. I set it on a shelf in a vial for a couple of hours as I sorted through my trap and photographed the moths I’d caught. When I returned to it, it was sitting in a different spot in the vial, and its legs appeared to be out. As soon as I picked up the vial again, however, it fell over and its legs curled underneath it again.

I pulled out my trusty Kaufman Guide to Insects (I love that book, have I mentioned that?), and there it was at the bottom of page 193: Bolitotherus cornutus. Looking it up on BugGuide.net reveals its common name to be Forked Fungus Beetle, or sometimes Horned Darkling Beetle. The two horns are projections from its thorax, and are used in “battle” with other males to win females (I’m not sure the purpose of the orange “hairs”). They are associated with bracket fungi of hardwoods such as maple and beech. The Kaufman guide makes a note that they are adept at “playing dead”, so I guess that’s what my beetle was doing whenever I disturbed it. Was pretty convincing!

Unidentified bracket fungus

While out with Raven today I encountered this bracket fungus projecting from the side of a stump. Just recently I had read over at Huckleberry Days about Dryad’s Saddle, Polyporus squamosus, a stalked bracket fungus that appears about now, so I thought, “Aha! A Dryad’s Saddle!”. I took a documenting photo and returned home. I pulled out my mushroom guide just to confirm and look up a couple of life history details about the species, and now I’m not convinced that it’s Dryad’s Saddle after all. All the photos I can find on the web for the species show it being concave where it attaches to the stalk, rather than convex like my fungus. I searched through the guide a couple of times and poked about the ‘net, but couldn’t come up with an identity.

Bee fly

Very close to the same spot, I stood and watched this bee fly hovering at several Spring Beauties at the side of the road. It was much oranger than previous individuals I’ve seen, and I wondered if it was just a dark Bombylius major, the species I’ve seen before, or a different species. I gather the half-light/half-dark wing markings are fairly distinctive, and seem to only be shared by B. major and B. mexicanus. It’s hard to make out the specific pattern of dark, but I’m leaning toward B. major.

Crab spider?

I have no idea what this spider is. Not being insects, they’re not usually treated in much depth in the usual insect guides, although Stephen Marshall’s Insects doesn’t do too badly. It looks like it might be a type of crab spider, but I’m not sure. I’d knocked it off the branch of a tree onto a white sheet when I was out looking for beetles (as per a post by Ted of Beetles in the Bush that suggested if you go around thwacking some branches in the spring, it’s possible to discover some beetles you might not normally encounter). I’ve only gone out the once and thwacked half a dozen branches before I was disrupted by the arrival of a real estate agent who was coming to take photos of the house, and then it rained much of last week. Now that the weather is nice again I plan to give it another try.

Birdwatching

A few animals from a little closer to home… with the nicer spring weather the cats have been allowed to go outside in their harnesses to sit in the long grass, enjoy the sunshine, and watch the birds. They’re tied to the deck with short 10-foot leads, so they’re not really a threat to anything except perhaps the odd bug. Both for the safety of wildlife and the cats themselves, I never let my cats roam about outdoors, so this is about as outdoor-cat as these guys will get. They enjoy it, though. Despite the chipmunk who thumbs its nose at them by foraging on fallen seeds under the birdfeeder five feet away.

Fish eats cat, fish spits up cat

Fish eats cat. Fish spits up cat.

Water dog

Since late winter, when the snow was just starting to melt, Raven has been taking an increased interest in water. At the first start of ice breakup, she’d paddle her feet in the shallows of the lake, but it’s taken her a while of gradually working up to letting her feet leave the security of the ground. Even when she started doing that, she’d only push forward half a body length, and then quickly turn around to paddle back. After once or twice of that, she wouldn’t go after sticks that were further out anymore, she’d just look at you and whine. We’d taken her out in the boat a couple times and “thrown” her overboard, and she’d paddle back to shore just fine, but was reluctant to go in of her own accord.

Then, a couple days ago, it was like she had an epiphany. We’d thrown a couple of sticks for her just out of reach from where her feet could touch bottom, and she’d pushed off to grab them, but turn quickly back around. She showed a bit of willingness to go a bit further, and so we got her to do two body lengths, and then three. Then Dan suggested throwing the stick way out and seeing if she’d go for it. So I tossed it four or five meters out, and she struck right out to retrieve it.

Water dog

Within the course of five minutes, she was suddenly paddling all over the place like a bonafide water dog. Not only that, but once she realized she wasn’t going to drown if her feet left the bottom, she discovered that hey – I actually like this! Now when we take her down to throw sticks for her, she’ll jump right in the water and start paddling out before you’ve even tossed the stick out. Quite a change from the puppy who was reluctant to even get her feet wet last fall!

Four days early

Graphocephala coccinea, Red-banded Leafhopper

Another beautifully mild day today, with our thermometer peaking at 17 oC (63 oF) in the sun mid-afternoon (actual temperature was somewhat lower, but not by a great deal). We’ve had a string of such nice days now. It looks like after tomorrow a cold front will move in and drop temperatures down for a few days, but by this time next week we’ll be back up again. I’ve been starved for balmy, sunny weather, I’ve been soaking it in these last few days.

So has the wildlife. I’m up to 12 species of moths recorded so far this season already. This seems to me like an extraordinary number for March 17, and I’m not sure how much of that number has to do with the string of warm days (perhaps we didn’t run into that last year?), versus me actually setting up and looking for them (I didn’t try this early last year because I didn’t want to waste my time if nothing was flying, since it was more of an effort when we were in the apartment, but this year since we’re in a house I can put the light out anyway and it’s not a big deal if nothing comes), versus simply being in a great place for moths (and everything else; I love my home).

Last night I got two moths which I took photos of this morning, after holding them chilled in the fridge overnight. Rather than just setting them up on the deck railing or on a sheet of paper or something, I hunted down a dead leaf that was still in good shape as a photo base. Most were starting to fall apart, or if they were still intact, they were curled up. Finally I found one that was whole, and mostly flat. When I picked it up and turned it over, I noticed a small white speck on the underside. It turned out to be a leafhopper. I think it’s a Red-banded Leafhopper, Graphocephala coccinea, also sometimes known as a Candy-striped Leafhopper. It’s very pale, and I suspect this may be because it had just recently emerged, and its exoskeleton was still soft (the colours in insects’ exoskeletons often strengthen as the shell hardens).

spring fly

Also something I noticed today that I hadn’t over the weekend was a profusion of flies. They were ubiquitous in open areas where leaf detritus had piled up in the fall, such as the edge of our driveway and lawn, or the clearings along the forest edge. I’m not positive on its ID. I think it might be a Stable Fly, Stomoxys calcitrans, which is a common and cosmopolitan species. I was able to rule out House Fly by the veination on the wings, but that was about as far as I got. Flies are a group I’m content to leave to someone else’s expertise.

Edit: Kirk suggests in the comments that this is a Flesh Fly, family Sarcophagidae. So not even close to Stable Fly. I told you fly ID is better left to the experts.

Winter Firefly, Ellychnia corrusca

I was intrigued by the discovery of the leafhopper, and the presence of all the flies, and thought perhaps during my walk with Raven today I’d take my camera and see what other spring insects I might be able to turn up. I wasn’t expecting much – after all, it’s only March 17 and there’s still snow on the ground in many places. But I might be lucky and find one or two.

I was surprised to discover a total of 13 individuals of 7 species today. Leafhopper and flies were #1 and 2, but species #3 was the above – fire-less fireflies known as the Winter Firefly, Ellychnia corrusca. The genus Ellychnia are all diurnal, and as such lack the light-emitting organs of most other fireflies (not much point, they wouldn’t be seen). They are also most commonly found on tree trunks, and indeed these two (plus one other) were climbing up the ridged bark of a big White Pine. The Winter Firefly, presumably taking its common name from its cool-weather tolerance and early spring appearance, also happens to be the largest firefly of the northeast by almost twice as much – the large one in this photo was probably about 18mm, perhaps 5/8″.

Twice-stabbed Ladybeetle, Chilocorus stigma

A couple trees away, sitting on the side of a hop-hornbeam, was this critter – a ladybeetle, but not the generic orange-with-black-and-white-“head” Asian Ladybeetle that we’re so used to seeing around the house and garden. This one is actually native, and discovering native ladybeetles is such a rare occurrence for me I could count the total number I’ve seen on two hands. Surprisingly, there are actually more than 480 species in North America, so I don’t know how much of my not having seen many is simply because they’re secretive compared to the Asian invaders, or because the Asian beetles are outcompeting them. This particular one, seeming the reverse in pattern from the usual black-spots-on-red, is called the Twice-stabbed Ladybeetle, Chilocorus stigma. You can see why the species was named such, but it’s a slightly morbid name, particularly when you consider the Lady in ladybeetle was actually a reference to the Virgin Mary.

There has been a general decline in ladybeetles on the continent, and in recognition of this the Lost Ladybug Project was started in an effort to build a database of ladybeetle sightings to try to help with monitoring these species (since it’s really hard for a couple of Cornell scientists to cover the entire continent). If you have any ladybeetle observations be sure to send them in!

Menecles insertus

I just happened to spot this guy sitting still in amongst the leaf litter while I was photographing a fly, not a foot away. It is a true bug with the scientific name Menecles insertus, and was easy enough to pick out in the Kaufman Insect guide by its all-brown colouring and pale stripe down its back. It seems to be a fairly common insect of the east, feeding on a range of deciduous trees. My guess would be that its brown colouring is an adaptation to a late fall and early spring adult stage, since the predominant colour in the landscape at those times of year is the brown of dead leaves. There wasn’t much info available in either resource I checked, though, and I’m simply hypothesizing that it overwinters as an adult since that would make such an early spring appearance easier.

wolf spider?

I found two of these spiders, in two different spots. I think they’re a type of wolf spider, but I don’t have a definitive ID on them yet, either. They were scuttling through the leaf litter, and, aside from the flies, were the main source of eye-catching movement that I encountered. All of the rest of the insects required examining the ground more closely.

metallic beetle

I also don’t know what this beetle is. It was just a wee little thing, less than half a cm (less than 1/4″) long, but a bright iridescent bronze. I had happened to kneel down to inspect a large rock with mica deposits in it, and as I was checking out the mica, a little beetle comes wandering up over the top of the rock in front of me, like he wanted to make sure he was counted.

Edit: In the comments, Ted makes this suggestion: “The beetle is a leaf beetle (Chrysomelidae) in the genus Graphops (subfamily Eumolpinae). It could be G. curtipennis, a common eastern North American representative, although there are a number of species in the genus that are difficult to sight ID.”

One other species I saw but didn’t post here was a diurnal moth, a small little tan guy, whose identity also remains unknown to me. It’s amazing how much time one can spend trying to identify things if one really wants to.

grasshopper nymph

Finally, species #13, was these grasshopper nymphs (above and below). I found the green one first, and was quite surprised to discover a grasshopper. I didn’t notice until I got home that it was a nymph and not an adult. Part of the presence of grasshoppers so early is explained by this. It turns out they’re both Northern Green-striped Grasshoppers, Chortophaga viridifasciata. The species has two colour morphs, with both sexes occurring in both colours, but with females predominantly green and males mostly brown. Eggs are laid and hatch in the summer and over the course of the fall the baby ‘hoppers go through a few moults. The winter arrives while they’re still nymphs, though they may be anywhere from half-grown to nearly adults. They overwinter as nymphs and emerge early in the spring to finish growing. They’re usually the first species of grasshopper to be encountered as adults in the spring because they’ve got such a huge head start on development over other species that overwinter as eggs.

Total counts to date this season: 12 species of moth, 12 species of other insect. At March 17th! And spring (the official first day) not even here yet, it’s still four days away. I just can’t get over that. It looks like we’ll have to endure a few chilly days as a cold front moves through later this week and into the weekend, but we’ll be back up to these temperatures again next week. I wonder if I should wait till the 21st to declare spring finally arrived?

grasshopper nymph

Spring in the air

spring

Yesterday was a gorgeous day. So warm that when I took Raven for her walk, I didn’t need my toque – note the bare ears in the photo! And bare hands – no mittens! And unzipped jacket. It was lovely. The day had started out overcast, but by the afternoon the sky had cleared and the sun shone brightly. There was a light breeze, but rather than nipping at your exposed skin like winter breezes usually do, this one caressed your face with soft, warm breaths of air. Oh, it was gorgeous. The sort of day where you just want to close your eyes and soak it in. I took Raven up the road to the abandoned property, where there were a couple of very old wooden chairs tucked at the edge of a clearing in the woods, where I could sit and do just that. The photo just can’t capture how beautiful the day was.

Today was lovely, too. Not quite as warm, so those delicious pockets of warm air weren’t present, but still mild and sunny, with the lingering scent of spring. Dan and I went up the road a little ways to hike around a parcel of crown land that Dan wanted to scout as a potential location for a new MAPS study site (MAPS – which stands for Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship – is a banding program that helps give clues about the “why” to complement the “whether” species are declining that other studies, such as the Breeding Bird Survey, detect; through the use of banding the program helps to determine birth and death rates, as well as other important information on territories and dispersal). We hiked about two kilometers, returning to the Jeep with our feet soaked by the soft, melting snow that still covered much of the woods. But what a splendid afternoon.

spring2

The sun and mild temperatures have melted the snow off my small little “garden”, the bit of earth that I cleared and planted with bulbs last October. I planted six types of bulbs: crocus, mini iris, scilla, allium, Nectaroscordum, and fritillaria. The latter three are all late spring bloomers, although the fritillaria might start blooming in late April. The other three, however, are all early spring bloomers. I did plant the bulbs in a particular arrangement last fall, but I can’t remember what went where now. There are shoots poking through the soft dirt already, encouraged by the warm sun and mild weather, but I don’t know who they belong to. I’m looking forward to their blooms!

9936 - Eupsilia morrisoni - Morrison's Sallow

And finally, the first moth of the season! I was standing outside last night, waiting for Raven to pee. Raven, however, was feeling a little freaked out by the barks of a dog a kilometer or so down the road echoing up the lake. When she gets like that, she won’t pee, despite much coaxing (she does know the command, and under ordinary circumstances will go right out and pee quickly and we can go inside again). So while I stood there waiting for her to gather her courage or whatever she was looking for, a moth flew in and started fluttering around our yard light! I quickly dashed inside to grab my insect net, and snagged it from up on the wall of the house. I suddenly didn’t feel so annoyed with Raven for taking her sweet time.

The moth was a Morrison’s Sallow, Eupsilia morrisoni. They are relatively common and widespread, and among the earliest to emerge in the spring, having spent the winter tucked into some crevice or nook as an adult moth. They will occasionally make appearances during the winter on exceptionally warm days/evenings. Although our temperature made it up to 12 C (54 F) during the day, by the time I was putting everyone to bed at midnight it had dropped to 2 C (36 F) again, and while I thought perhaps the warm sun might have roused somebody from their winter slumber, I had expected any moths to show up would be in the first hour or two after dusk, while it was still somewhat warm. I was quite surprised to see a moth out and about so late, after the temperature had dropped so much. I tucked it in the fridge overnight (it’s actually warmer in the fridge than it was outside, ironically) and took photos and released it this morning, setting it in the sun where it could warm up and then go off to find its own nook to crawl into again.