Tuesday Miscellany

Eastern Comma

This week’s miscellany post could almost be relabeled “end-of-season inverts”, as most of the photos are of this group of critters. November is the month where winter finally seems to be taking hold: the trees are barren and gray, the meadow grasses are dried and dead, temperatures are falling, there’s often frost at dawn. And yet, even in the face of winter, thumbing their proverbial noses at it, the last remaining ambassadors of summer, insects and arachnids and other invertebrates, still come out in the afternoons.

Just yesterday this lovely Eastern Comma flitted across my path as Raven and I left the house to head out into the fields. It alighted on a sun-bathed cedar branch and spread its wings to soak up the warm rays. It’s like he came to bid me good night, see you next year! It won’t be long before all of these guys have found a snug place to sleep out the winter. As the snow begins to melt in March and the earth begins to warm again we’ll start to see them on the wing again, perhaps a little worn, but a refreshing sight nonetheless after months of cold and snow.

Autumnal Moth

I’ve been searching tree trunks recently looking for a particular species of moth whose females are flightless and can sometimes be found on trees during the mating season. So far I haven’t located any, but while I was searching I came across this guy. It’s an Autumnal Moth, a cold-hardy species that’s found across much of the north. In addition to getting them coming to my lights at night, I’ve also seen them fluttering through the forest during the daylight hours, occasionally alighting on trees. I found this one by chance, though if one were to follow the dancing flight of a dayflying moth it would come to rest for observation eventually.

Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar

I mentioned a couple of posts ago how Dan brings me the most thoughtful gifts. This was his latest offering, a large, chunky caterpillar that he’d found climbing up the side of the porch steps. I’d seen these guys before at the lake house and so knew what it was: the caterpillar of the Giant Leopard Moth (I’d also caught the adults at my lights in June, photo here). I was a bit surprised to discover the species here at the new house; I had actually just mapped the range for the species for the guide that afternoon, so it was fresh in my mind. Giant Leopards are a more southern species, with their range just sneaking into Ontario in the Carolinian zones along Lake Erie and at the western corner of Lake Ontario. The Carolinian region here in eastern Ontario extends from Kingston on Lake Ontario north into the edge of the Shield along the Frontenac Arch, which includes Frontenac Provincial Park (which we lived across from). Although we’re only about 35 km from our last house, as the crow flies, the habitat around here feels different and I thought that we were outside of that Carolinian zone. But maybe not? Or maybe the species comes a bit farther north than the data I have indicates?

Tetragnatha viridis

As a segue onto non-Lepidopterans, this spider turned up in my moth trap one night. I do get the occasional spider in the trap (one smart thinker actually built a web in the funnel and caught a moth), but this is the first time I’d seen one of these guys there. It’s a longjawed orbweaver (family Tetragnathidae), specifically Tetragnatha viridis. Members of the genus Tetragnatha are often seen stretched out on long, narrow foliage such as grass blades or goldenrod leaves, their long front legs extended ahead of them, parallel to the leaf. Apparently it also has the ability to skitter over water surfaces like a water strider. There are hundreds of species in this genus, found around the world. Tetragnatha roughly translates to “four jaws”, which presumably refers to the oversized mandibles of some species.

Grasshopper

Even now, at the fringe of winter, there are still grasshoppers that bound off the path through the meadows as Raven and I walk through. I don’t know what the species of this one is, though I might guess it to be a member of the genus Melanoplus, such as a couple of the ones I found back in Grasshopper Season. I don’t know if it was because the air temperature wasn’t all that warm even by mid-afternoon, or if they’re just getting sluggish with the approach of winter, but compared to the skittish individuals back in September these ones were exceptionally obliging, allowing me to move grass blades just inches from their heads out of the way of the shot.

Ground beetle - maybe Calosoma sp?

The final insect of the post, this ground beetle, or what I presume to be a ground beetle, was attracted to the porch light one evening last week. Despite the purplish sheen to the elytra, it was difficult to pin down an identification to this one, too. My guess might be Calosoma sp., a group of ground beetles predatory on caterpillars, but I find the all-black beetles a challenge to figure out.

Tamaracks

At the back of our fields is a narrow stretch of boggy forest, full of sphagnum moss, cedar and tamarack, the only place I can recall seeing tamarack on our property. It seems to be a species often associated with wet or boggy habitats (although I know of a couple growing in my parents’ new backyard, which is dry). It’s a unique type of tree, looking for all the world like an evergreen until fall rolls around and its needles all turn yellow and fall off. One who didn’t know better might be alarmed for the health of the tree. Of course, this begs the question of why does it do it? Conifers have evolved exceptionally thin, waxy leaves (needles) specifically so that they wouldn’t need to drop them in the winter (the shape helps them to retain water, and they don’t become as heavy when covered with snow as a deciduous tree would). The reason relates to snow. Most conifers tend to develop very strong limbs to help them support the weight of snow collecting on the branches (they still collect more than a bare deciduous tree) in exchange for being able to keep most of their leaves and not have to invest energy in regrowing them each year. However, tamaracks have relatively weak limbs, and if they retained their needles the weight of the snow would snap them (compared to the equivalent situation in a spruce, whose limbs are stronger and can support the snow). The tamaracks have shifted where they invest their energy – instead of building strong, sturdy limbs, they have opted instead to regrow their leaves each year.

Milkweed puffs

Most of the milkweed pods in the fields have opened up now, spreading their seeds to the wind. As the sun gets low early in the afternoon at this time of year the puffs of seeds seem to glow with the backlighting, radiant blooms of fairy hair.

Backlighting makes for some wonderful photographs in the meadow, and I took a number while I was out with Raven. I thought I’d try getting a photo of the path leading back to the hedgerow, the grass all golden in the sunlight. Raven rarely misses an opportunity to be in a photo, particularly if you’re taking the photo from ground level. As soon as she spotted me kneeling (to try to get a better angle), she came racing up the trail, ears flapping, tongue glowing, eyes bright.

Incoming!

Incoming!

Incoming!

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Tuesday Miscellany

milkweed pod

I missed Miscellany last week; I didn’t have very many photos, and the ones I had were part of series that I wanted to post more than one image from. With the passing of summer, nature is slowing down outside. There aren’t as many bugs about, the wildflowers are largely finished. Most of our summer birds have headed south, leaving just the winter feeder visitors behind. My walks through the woods are getting quieter, and I have to make more effort to notice interesting things; they aren’t as abundant or obvious as they were.

I love playing with milkweed seeds. I have a hard time passing by open pods when I’m out walking. I like the way the seeds all grow in such careful organization, smoothly layered upon each other like scales. I’ll often pull out puffs and cast them to the wind, just for the joy of it. Last week I pulled out a full, un-fluffed bunch of seeds from a recently-opened pod, such as the one shown here. I peeled off the seeds, slowly, enjoying the silkiness of the down. When I got to the end, I was left holding a fascinating structure. It was papery, with paper-thin divisions running along its length. the down of the seeds was tucked neatly into these creases, securing it until the wind became strong enough to tease it from the pod (or a person pulls them out and tosses them into the air). Presumably this is an adaptation to make sure that there is sufficient wind to carry the seed away from the mother plant when the seed falls off, and not just fall straight down.

If the structure has a formal name (undoubtedly it does), I don’t know what it is, as I wasn’t able to turn up the answer with a web search. I did, however, find out that they make excellent fire-starting material because they’re so papery. Of course, so do dried leaves, which also happen to be abundant at the same time of year…

milkweed bugs

I found this pair hanging out on a milkweed pod last week. The upper one I’ve already mentioned once this fall; it’s a Small Milkweed Bug, a species that feeds on the seeds of milkweed plants. The smaller one below is a nymph of the same species. In most true bugs (that is, the group of insects that have a piercing tube-like structure for mouthparts and wings that are solid for only half their lenth and membranous the rest, leading to the group’s name Hemiptera – hemi/half, pteron/winged) the nymphs resemble wingless adults in shape but are usually differently, and often more brightly, patterned than the adults. This is a later instar of the nymph; younger nymphs are nearly all red-orange.

Giant Water Bugs

Speaking of bugs, I have been inundated with Giant Water Bugs this evening. After a spell of cold, near- or below-freezing nights, we’ve had two in a row that have been fairly warm, up near or slightly above 10 C (50 F). Last night I didn’t realize it was so warm until well after midnight, but tonight I was prepared, and set out my moth trap for a try at late-season moths. I plugged it in just before dusk, and then forgot about it. After dinner, I put Raven on her tie-out when she asked to be let out, and went back into the house. A few minutes later she started barking in alarm. I stepped outside and could hear something rustling in the leaves at the front of the house – clearly what had gotten Raven worked up. I grabbed my shoes and went around to investigate, and it was immediately obvious what she was hearing. There were dozens of these guys, on the porch, in the garden, in the lawn, and yes, rustling around in the thick bed of leaves under the trees in front of the house. Where the heck are they all coming from? I did finally walk through the forest that borders our meadows on the west, where I’d also heard spring peepers calling a few weeks ago, but couldn’t see anything near the edge that was very wet, or even perhaps a springtime vernal pool. I’m hoping not too many of these things actually go into the trap.

Baby Northern Water Snake

Another sighting of puzzling origin is this guy. I’d stepped outside this afternoon to dump the compost while I could see what I was doing (I’d created a large pile last night when I prepared and froze a batch of carrots from our garden), and right beside the porch steps was this little snake. Only 6 or 7 inches (15-17 cm) long, it was in the rocky, mostly empty soil bed beside the walkway. I quickly put down the compost and hurried back inside for my camera. At the time I just assumed it was a young milk snake. I took a few photos, then picked him up and move him away from the house. Sitting down to blog this evening, I had another look at him. Eastern Milk Snakes usually have a pale Y-shaped mark at the back of their head and this one didn’t have that. I wasn’t sure if that was because it was a juvenile, or because it wasn’t a milk snake. Some poking around suggests the answer is the latter. I believe this is actually a young Northern Water Snake, Nerodia sipedon. Although adults tend to remain closely associated with water, juveniles seem to often stray across land, perhaps as they disperse looking for new water to colonize. The solid bands in the front half, turning into a checkered pattern in the back half of the body, seem to be characteristic of the species.

Hitched Arches caterpillar

I found this caterpillar clinging to the inside of the porch screen last week. I’m not quite sure how it got in, but it was a very chilly day, and it wasn’t up to going anywhere further. I took a few photos, and then put it outside where it could hopefully find a more appropriate place to hole up. I believe it’s the caterpillar of a Hitched Arches, Melanchra adjuncta, a species of moth. I’d encountered the adults at the lake house last August (2008), and then again in May (this year). I caught one again this summer, after moving to this house. The species is found across much of North America, and flies for much of the year, May through September. Presumably they overwinter as caterpillars or pupae, thus delaying their appearance in spring.

Old nest in grapevine

We’ve had a couple of hard frosts now, and even the frost-hardy plants have wilted away. The grapevines are nearly bare of leaves, exposing the clusters of dark blue Concord grapes, and the mass of woody stems twining and crawling and sprawling across the side of the shed. As I was standing looking at the vines, thinking I should collect up some of the remaining grapes and freeze them to make pie with this winter, I noticed a clump of twigs tucked into the back of the tangles. Looking closer, it turned out to be a nest. It was quite large, appropriate for something robin-sized. It had probably finished up and fledged its young before Dan and I moved in in July, assuming it was even from this year. Determining the identity of the builders of nests can be difficult, with the exception of a few distinctive species (such as robins, or swallows). I’m not sure what species this one belonged to, although if I had to hazard a guess I might say Brown Thrasher, which build chunky, twiggy nests, usually on the ground but also sometimes tucked into thick shrubs or vines.

Playing ball in the leaves

Nearly all of our leaves have fallen now, and they form a thick bed across the lawn under the trees. I was tempted to rake them up today, if only because it was such a nice warm afternoon and it would be a reason to be outside. I didn’t, however, instead tossing the ball with Raven and Dan. Here Dan’s commanding Raven to “Drop it!”, which she does, though generally only after a good bit of bounding about in circles playing keep-away. She tosses up sprays of leaves like she’s running through water. A few more weeks and we’ll be feeling less inclined to stand still and toss a ball around outside.

Giant otters at Cocha Salvador, Manu, Peru, by Sarah_and_Iain on Flickr

Day 5 on the Kolibri Expeditions’ Manu bloggers’ tour takes us to Cocha Blanco (roughly translated to “White Lake”), an old oxbow lake that is now home to waterlilies, sunken logs, fish – and a family of Giant Otters. The largest species of otter, and by extension the largest species of mustelid (weasel family), it lives up to its name with males reaching 5-6 feet (1.5-1.8 m) in length. In some areas, and historically, it was also known by the name of “River Wolf”, for its huge size and carnivorous habits. Like other otters, they’re highly social, living in family groups and vocalizing frequently. Unfortunately, it is now endangered, primarily to habitat loss, with nearly 80% of its original South American range now unsuitable. Because their occurrence tends to be so patchy, population estimates are hard to make, but are thought to be less than 5000 individuals. Suriname and the Guianas are the otter’s stronghold, with a scattering across the rest of northern South America. The promotion of responsible ecotourism can lead to habitat conservation efforts that will help this species and others. Back in January Julie Zickefoose did a great post (one of a few) about Giant Otters she saw in Guyana, which made me keen to experience these creatures.

I’m going to Peru with Kolibri Expeditions as part of their blogger promotional series. Want to come? I’d love to have you along! My departure leaves November 13, 2010 and returns the 21st, well before the US Thanksgiving. You can get more information about the trip, including itinerary and, of course, cost, at this page. Don’t forget that if you’re also a blogger you get $100 off. In addition to having a great time, meeting some great bloggers, and seeing some fabulous birds, you’ll also be supporting the local communities as they work toward developing a sustainable ecotourism industry for their area. It’s a win-win!

Tuesday Miscellany

Wooly Bears and Hickory Tussock Moths

The same day that I found the fairy ring, I also came across a caterpillar highway. At first, I only noticed one Wooly Bear crossing the path, and as I stooped to look at it, another caught my eye. I picked them both up and put them on my hand for a photo. Then when I leaned down to put them back on the ground, I found a third. Well, a photo of three in the hand is better than a photo of two in the hand, so I picked it up, too, and took another photo. Then I spotted a fourth caterpillar. And then a fifth. I wandered back and forth along about three meters/yards of trail and turned up these ten caterpillars all on or right beside the path. The brown-and-black ones are Wooly Bears, of course (my mom just did a great post about them). They were most likely wandering in search of a cozy place to hole up for the winter.

The white one is a Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar. I think the little yellowish-black one is a younger Hickory Tussock (many caterpillars change colour/pattern with each successive moult). The tussock moths are a group whose caterpillars all share the characterisitc of having these great tufts of “fur” poking out around their head and tail ends. If the hairs prick the skin they can cause discomfort and rashes, particularly in people with sensitive skin. This is also true of Wooly Bears and all other fuzzy caterpillars. Presumably the fuzz would act as a defense mechanism since if a predator eats one and ends up with an itchy/sore palate and tongue as a result, they’re unlikely to eat another. This may be why they curl into balls when disturbed, protecting their hairless belly (all of the individuals on my hand started out balled up, but as they realized I wasn’t going to eat them, they started wandering and didn’t re-curl even when I picked them up to adjust their position). Another reason for all the hair is that these caterpillars hibernate as caterpillars, not in cocoons, and the fuzz may act as insulation. It is also often used in the cocoon when they’re building it.

Oh, and see those little green balls in the middle of all the critters? Caterpillar poop!

American Toad

On Saturday, as I was gathering up my gear to head over to the 100-acre woods, Dan called me over to the window well at the side of the house. Perched on the windowsill, looking not too happy about her confinement, was this giant toad. Between the muskrat and now the toad, I’m starting to think perhaps we should put some window screening over the wells. Or at the very least a board or stick so the animals can crawl out again. I scooped the toad out and placed her on our walk for photos, with a penny for scale. This was a particularly colourful individual, with pale yellow underparts and a beautiful reddish tinge to the brown sides. It was also a lot blotchier than the one I profiled last year. There seems to be considerable variation in the colour and patterning of American Toads, and I’ve been thrown off on occasion when the individual just looks so unusual to me that I think it must be a different species. The only other species that might occur in Ontario to be confused with it, though, is Fowler’s Toad, and the latter always has three warts in the large black spots on its back, while Americans only have one or two.

Owl pellet and carrion beetle

Dan had been on a roll. The day before, he found this owl pellet, which he carefully saved for me. It was underneath one of the big maple trees in our yard. Most likely it was the product of a Great Horned Owl that had stopped by one evening. So far, the Great Horn’ds are the only species of owl that I’ve heard around the new place. They’re generalists as far as breeding habitat goes, able to happily make a living in even smaller wooded areas. You’ll even sometimes find them nesting in urban woodlots or naturalized parks. At the lake house we had virtually no Great Horn’ds around, but did have several Barred Owls in the vicinity, which prefer larger tracts of mature forest. It was neat to think of the owl having been in our yard, and spent long enough in the tree to produce this. If it hadn’t left the pellet, we would never have known it had been there.

Dan had saved the pellet thinking I might be interested in dissecting it and looking at the bones inside. Probably ordinarily I would have, but I happened to be distracted by this beetle. I found the beetle not far from the pellet, but placed it on the pellet myself. I know, I know, that’s cheating. Oh well. Makes a good shot, doesn’t it? The beetle actually stayed there where I’d put it, so I don’t know if it was interested in the regurgitated material, or was simply waiting for me to leave. The beetle is a carrion beetle, perhaps Nicrophorus orbicollis, one of many species that can detect rotting carcasses from long distances, up to 1.5 miles (4 km) away. Perhaps even more remarkable, the beetles can detect the dead animals often within an hour of death. And probably even more amazing, these beetles exhibit parental care, the parents staying with the eggs, and then the young once they’ve hatched, and feeding them regurgitated food.

bones

Speaking of bones, I encountered these buried in the grass at the back of the property last week. They’re obviously quite old and weathered, and have been there a long time. It’s most likely that they’re deer bones, perhaps a kill made by coyotes many winters ago, but not being an expert in bone identification I couldn’t say for sure. I found one or two more a short distance away. Given that there’s only a few bones and not a whole skeleton, I wonder if the animal had removed a leg or section of the prey and brought it here to consume in peace.

Witches brooms

A number of weeks ago I posted about a strange growth I found sitting on the trunk of a toppled hemlock in the 100-acre woods. At the time I thought it was an epiphyte, like a bromeliad, only some temperate woody species. I was corrected by a couple of my fabulous readers who pointed out that it was actually a deformity of the tree caused by a fungal infection, and was usually called a witch’s broom. While out this weekend I came across another one sporting these growths. However, these ones looked more like deformities than a separate plant perched atop a fallen trunk. I might have been able to figure out what they were if I’d seen these ones first.

milkweed

All the milkweed pods are starting to split open and release their seeds to the wind. The meadows are dotted with fluffy white puffs, both attached to the plant still and ones that have already drifted off.

milkweed seeds

I haven’t decided what message I should send off to Santa yet, though.

Lowland Tapir by Jyrki Hokkanen on Picasa

In addition to the macaw clay lick, one of the stops on the Manu tour is near a mammalian clay lick, also called a colpa, that is often frequented by tapirs. These colpas are understandably less busy than those of the avian sort, but are often the best chance one has of seeing tapirs and many other mammals in their natural habitat, since mammals, even the large ones, can be incredibly secretive. Many tour companies and lodges will take their visitors to a hide at dusk, and the tapirs visit in the early hours of the night. Like the parrots, the mammals are looking for minerals and salts to help with their digestion and boost blood electrolytes.

I’m going to Peru with Kolibri Expeditions as part of their blogger promotional series. Want to come? I’d love to have you along! My departure leaves November 13, 2010 and returns the 21st, well before the US Thanksgiving. You can get more information about the trip, including itinerary and, of course, cost, at this page. Don’t forget that if you’re also a blogger you get $100 off. In addition to having a great time, meeting some great bloggers, and seeing some fabulous birds, you’ll also be supporting the local communities as they work toward developing a sustainable ecotourism industry for their area. It’s a win-win!

Tuesday Miscellany

Sunset

It’s been a busy week! I’ve been trying to pull together the October issue of the Ontario Field Ornithologists’ newsletter, and have been working on a fair bit of moth-related stuff for the book. This has not only kept me from posting much this week, but also kept me from getting outside very much, so I don’t have many photos for the miscellany post this week. I have a few backlogged subjects I hope to get to soon, but in the meantime, here are the handful of “leftover” photos I had.

With the cooler weather settling in as we pass the fall equinox, we’re starting to see mist rising over the fields in the morning, and settling in at night. This photo was taken on one such cool evening, as the sun was setting and the dew was falling. It’s a phenomenon I really only see in meadows and over water; I don’t know whether that’s just because large open areas are better for making it visible, or if the mist is caused by it being a large open area. The little “island” in the mist here is a small hummock that was built by the previous owners many years ago. I don’t know what’s underneath the grass or why they built it.

PinkUnderwing

After a couple of months of distraction before, during, and following our move, I’ve finally got back into mothing regularly – naturally, now that the weather is turning cool. This week will be too cold to bother, but last week had a few decent nights. The large flashy moths at this time of year are the underwings, members of the genus Catocala. Most species in this genus have rather drab, wood-grained forewings, and brightly coloured hindwings that give the group their name. The hindwings are usually pink or orange, but sometimes a yellowy colour, or solid black. Many can be tricky to tell apart from each other. This one is a Pink Underwing, one of a few species with pink underwings. Because they’re so large and flashy compared to many moths out at this time of year they’re one of the groups that has been relatively well-documented, along with silk moths and sphinx moths.

GreenDarner

Although most of the bugs I get to my trap are moths, I do get some other critters. Wasps, beetles, midges, true bugs and daddy-long-legs are regulars. What I don’t see very often – or at all, really – are dragonflies. I nearly stepped on this Green Darner the other morning. Dragonflies are day-fliers, so it would be unusual for one to be out at night to be attracted to the light. I can only think either that this one was roosting in the garden near the light, or it rose before I did in the morning and came to the light before I came out to turn it off (I’m not up at the crack of dawn, so this is in theory possible, though I don’t know if dragonflies would actually do this). This is a female or immature Green Darner, as told by the colour of the abdomen – adult males have blue “tails”, while those of females and immatures are red.

Katydid

I found this near the trap one morning, too, though I think it was just coincidental that it was nearby. It’s a katydid, perhaps an Oblong-winged Katydid (Amblycorypha oblongifolia) or a related species. The name comes from members of the genus Pterophylla, the True Katydids, whose call sounds a little like “katy-did, katy-didn’t”; katydids of other genera don’t sound like that. The Amblycorypha includes 14 species in North America. Most are the typical green, but occasionally one will turn up that’s a rather startling bubble-gum pink, like this one photographed by Tom of Ohio Nature. Female katydids have long, thick, curved appendages protruding from the rear of their abdomen (their ovipositors), while males do not; I think this individual is a male.

Clearcut

I saw this scene along a sideroad near my parents’ new home. It seems to be a common land-clearing practice out in eastern Ontario, but was something I hadn’t encountered in the Greater Toronto Area when I lived there. I don’t know if this was because of the higher population density in the GTA, or just that land wasn’t used for agriculture as heavily as it is in the east. To clear the land for crops farmers will bulldoze the trees and stack all of the leftover brush in huge mounds that they then burn (for scale, that’s corn growing behind the mounds). On the weekend, on the way back from the pink ribbon ride, I passed a couple such controlled burns. I suspect that the large trunks are sold, either for firewood or lumber, and it’s the remaining brush that’s burned, but it seems like a bit of a waste to me. Couldn’t they sell it to someone for mulch or woodchips? Is it really necessary to burn it and release all that carbon into the air?

RoadSign

Also on the drive home on the weekend I spotted this version of the “Slow, children playing” sign one often sees around family neighbourhoods. I wonder what exactly they mean by that?

Macaw Clay Lick by devittj on Flickr

One of the stops on the Peru tour will be a viewing of the local clay lick. This photo of Red-and-green Macaws was taken at the clay lick at Manu. Clay licks are exposed earthen banks that are rich in minerals. Generally speaking, such clay licks are only visited by parrots. It is presumed that the minerals in the clay neutralize any toxins contained in the fruit and seeds that the birds consume. Macaws of various species seem to be the most common visitors to clay licks, but certainly not the only ones. Different species of amazon parrots, parakeets and parrotlets all partake of the rich earth as well. Some clay licks can attract hundreds or even thousands of parrots from the surrounding rainforest. Just imagine the spectacle! If you’re having trouble imagining, check out this video of the Tambopata clay lick also in Peru:

I’m going to Peru with Kolibri Expeditions as part of their blogger promotional series. Want to come? I’d love to have you along! My departure leaves November 13, 2010 and returns the 21st, well before the US Thanksgiving. You can get more information about the trip, including itinerary and, of course, cost, at this page. Don’t forget that if you’re also a blogger you get $100 off. In addition to having a great time, meeting some great bloggers, and seeing some fabulous birds, you’ll also be supporting the local communities as they work toward developing a sustainable ecotourism industry for their area. It’s a win-win!

Tuesday Miscellany

milkweed bug

I have a suspicion that my Monday Miscellanys may be indefinitely bumped to Tuesday for the winter, as Mondays are my tv-watching night, with the season starting yesterday. I don’t watch much tv, following just a couple of shows religiously every week rather than plopping down on the couch in the evening, and Monday happens to be the big tv night. I guess we’ll see.

First up this week, a Small Milkweed Bug (Lygaeus kalmii) on a Milkweed pod. Milkweed bugs are found across much of North America generally in association with milkweed, as the name implies. Though they take nectar from flowers, they’re primarily known for piercing milkweed seeds to “drink” the seed contents. For the same reason that Monarch caterpillars and butterflies are unpalatable to predators, so are Milkweed Bugs. They ingest the chemicals in the milkweed plant and deposit them in their body tissue. The markings on their back, the bright orange-and-black cross pattern, are presumed to be aposematic coloration – warning to predators that the bug tastes bad or is poisonous.

Many organisms employ this sort of coloration, which helps to enforce the idea to predators that anything brightly coloured should be avoided. However, it’s a learned avoidance – they have to taste a few before they’ll get the idea. Back in university, in my insect behaviour class, we did an experiment where we presented live assassin bugs with live milkweed bugs that were reared on milkweed seeds (and therefore tasted bad) or on sunflower seeds (which they also grow successfully on but don’t obtain the distasteful chemicals), and manipulated the coloration of the milkweed bugs using non-toxic marker. It was interesting to see how the assassin bugs learned to avoid the pattern that tasted bad, whether it was the natural pattern or not, and how they would adapt and “re-learn” when the patterns were changed.

Giant Water Bug

I put out my moth lights and trap last night, our first warm night in over a week. There was a great diversity of moths, including a few species I hadn’t seen before (the joys of moving to a new place). There were also these guys, Giant Water Bugs, Lethocerus americanus. They were abundant, with at least half a dozen appearing at my sheet. I was quite surprised to discover them at the light, for two reasons. The first is that prior to this I’d only ever encountered them in the spring (for instance, this individual I got at my parents’ old house, or these ones at the last place). The second is that at both previous locations my sheet had been set up within sight of water. Last night happened to be autumn (just to clarify in case anyone had been asleep the last few months and wasn’t sure), and I’m not aware of a pond anywhere near the house, so I don’t know where they’d be coming from. Now that said, this evening I was hearing some Spring Peepers peeping from the forest not far from the house. The forest is the neighbour’s property, so I’ve never been in there. It’s entirely possible there’s a vernal pool just a short distance in, and without the frogs peeping, or the water bugs showing up at my light, I would never have known.

jumping spider

This unidentified jumping spider had quite a wild ride yesterday. I’m not sure whether it climbed on to my car here at home or at the grocery store, but I only noticed it as I was zipping down the highway from town at 100 km/h (60 mph). The poor spider was clinging desperately to the windshield, flattened and with legs spread. I have no idea what it was gripping, but I guess glass, like many things, is rougher at a microscopic level than it appears to our macro-scale senses. It rode for nearly 10 minutes in 100 km/h winds before I finally reached home. I expected it to lose its grip and go flying off at any point, but it never did. When I got home, it finally let go and started scurrying across the car, perhaps looking for a less exposed place to hide. It hung out on the car long enough for me to get my camera, though.

argiope sp

Last week I mentioned the Black-and-yellow Argiope that I had been seeing a lot of out in the meadows. There seems to have been a quick shift in the Argiope population, because I haven’t seen one of those in a few days. Now all I’m seeing are the above, Banded Argiope, Argiope trifasciata. They have similar web-building habits, though I find them slightly lower in the grass and not as often across trails. They also don’t seem to make the same bold white zig-zag down the middle. The most noticeable difference between the species, though, is that Banded Argiopes are incredibly camera shy. I have been trying for several days to get a good photo of one on a web. Never did. As soon as you approach the web, they let go and drop down into the grass. This is a survival tactic for avoiding being carried off on some large animal that might blunder through the web (or perhaps defensive against being plucked off the web by a bird or something), but it makes it really difficult to get a photo. I finally happened across this very obliging individual just sitting on some vegetation.

Northern Walkingstick

Northern Walkingstick

Earlier in the week I spotted the first Northern Walkingstick, hanging out in my garden on some Amaranth, and then a few days later, saw another – or the same? – individual on one of the screened windows. With the one that I found at our porch light back in August, I have been surprised at how many I’ve turned up this year, given how many I’d seen in the last few years.

Blue-headed Vireo

Fall migrants continue to trickle through. One of these mornings I’m going to have to rouse myself just after dawn and put on my rubber boots and rainpants and go back through the dewy meadow to try to catch the birds when they’re active… one of these mornings. I’m usually up just early enough to catch the tail end of it before things go quiet for the day. This bird was one of the tail-enders this morning, a young-of-the-year Blue-headed Vireo that was testing out its pipes for next spring. We’re at the southern-ish edge of their breeding range here in Ontario; the species can be found, patchily, right down to Lakes Erie and Ontario, but the concentrations get very sparse that far south. Their highest densities are further north, in some areas of Algonquin Park and northern Ontario. It’s hard to say if we’d have any Blue-headeds in the large tract of land down the road, but this bird was most likely from much further north, either way. Blue-headed Vireos are one of the minority of species with a large, statistically significant population increase in the province over the last 20 years.

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock by dermoidhome on Flickr

This week’s Peru highlight is my number two most-wanted for the trip. The Andean Cock-of-the-Rock is a cool bird with its bright orange plumage and half-circle forehead crest. I’m not sure if it’s official or not, but it’s often considered the national bird of Peru. The males all congregate together in a “lek” where they compete to gain the attention and affection of females, usually in the morning and evening hours. They’re typically more of a higher-elevation bird, found often along stream valleys in cloud forests. I don’t know if I’ll actually get a chance to see these guys; the first day of the itinerary stops at Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge for lunch, where there’s an active lek not far away, but it may not be ideal circumstances to see the birds, and I don’t know that they’ll be encountered elsewhere on the trip. But I can hope. :)

I’m going to Peru with Kolibri Expeditions as part of their blogger promotional series. Want to come? I’d love to have you along! My departure leaves November 13, 2010 and returns the 21st, well before the US Thanksgiving. You can get more information about the trip, including itinerary and, of course, cost, at this page. Don’t forget that if you’re also a blogger you get $100 off. In addition to having a great time, meeting some great bloggers, and seeing some fabulous birds, you’ll also be supporting the local communities as they work toward developing a sustainable ecotourism industry for their area. It’s a win-win!

Tuesday Miscellany

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Another week flies by – has it passed already? It seems all I can do to keep up some days. Here is the other half of last week’s miscellaneous collection, along with a few new additions from this past week.

Our swimming pool was closed up this weekend and drained today. The owners of the house had it going earlier this season, before Dan and I moved in. Neither Dan nor I are avid swimmers, though I do enjoy paddling in warm water. However, the weather was so cool and rainy this summer, the pool never warmed up, and it only got hot enough for me to even consider it on a couple of occasions. Rather than waste the energy in keeping it up, we advised our landlord that it might just be best to drain it.

It will be missed by the frogs, who had discovered this watery oasis in the middle of our pondless meadows. Our peak count was seven individuals. We tried removing them at one point, walking them back half a kilometer to the neighbour’s pond, but within a couple of days new ones had moved in to take their place. Surprisingly, they didn’t seem to suffer from the chlorinated water (very low levels, but still), and they probably loved the bonanza of insects that got caught in the pool and drowned. They would haul themselves up on the hose of the kreepy krawler. Raven had a blast running about the pool edge, peering in at them, she’d go to the pool gate and sit and whine for us to let her in. We mostly seemed to have Green Frogs inhabiting the pool, identified by their green upper lip and dark bands across their back legs.

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August was our first “repeat” month in eastern Ontario, since we moved out of Toronto to the lake house for Aug 1 last year. It’s been interesting to see some of the same observations we had last year turning up again this year. One example is this giant crane fly. Almost three inches from foot to foot, it’s got to be the biggest crane fly species I’ve seen. We had a couple around the house last year, including this individual. It’s a Giant Eastern Crane Fly, Pedicia albivitta. They’re attracted to artificial light, and we’ve been seeing them regularly at our porch lights.

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This repeat goes back to spring 2008. I found a similar cocoon stuck to my parents’ windowsill last winter, and later saw many at the research station. Since that initial observation, I’ve also seen them on the outside walls of the lake house, and now around here, including on plants in the meadow. They belong to a bagworm moth, probably Psyche casta, a species whose females fashion these stick cases like caddisflies and then never leave them. They mate with males and then lay their eggs all within the confines of their case. Once the female has mated, she secures the case to a surface with a sticky pad of silk, and then dies. The case in this photo probably no longer had a living adult in it, though I didn’t try taking it off to check.

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I spotted this strikingly-patterned beetle on a plant at my parents’ new place while housesitting last weekend. It’s a leaf beetle, and I foolishly neglected to pay attention to what species of plant it was on. Since leaf beetles tend to be very closely associated with particular types of plants (such as the Three-lined Potato Beetles or Clavate Tortoise Beetles on my Chinese Lanterns in the spring), knowing the plant species would have helped with identification. Still, I suspect it to be a Ragweed Leaf Beetle, Zygogramma suturalis, which feeds, unsurprisingly, on ragweed, a pretty common plant around here.

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I found this brightly-coloured clump of fungi on an old stump in one of our small stands of trees out in the middle of the meadows. From the photos in my mushroom guide I think it’s Mycena leaiana, a fairly common and widespread bright orange fungus that is usually found in clusters on stumps and logs. It’s considerably larger than other Mycena species I’ve encountered, and was particularly eye-catching, even through all the foliage.

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I found this lovely flower in the woods at my parents’ place. Of course, after posting the white mystery flowers last week, I knew what these ones were: White Turtlehead, Chelone glabra. It’s a very common, widespread species that enjoys wet soils and is found blooming this time of year. It’s a host plant for Baltimore Checkerspots, which we’ve seen lots of in the wet woods at the back of our meadows where I found that first one.

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I noticed under our birdfeeder the other day that some opportunistic seeds had sprouted. Two of them had got quite large. I think the one on the right is a sunflower; I did notice a few other younger sunflowers hidden in the long grass. The one on the left, of course, is corn. This one rather surprised me, I didn’t think that the corn packaged in birdseed mix was actually viable. But apparently so! I don’t expect that it will get large enough to actually produce ears before the frost this year, but I’m impressed by its tenacity nonetheless!