If you look very closely you will see that the adult Eastern Kingbird has just stuffed a female Widow Skimmer dragonfly (that it has caught and killed) down the throat of one of its nestlings whose beak is pointed skyward. Eventually, after much hard work, the young kingbird succeeded in swallowing the insect, wings and all. The parents will continue feeding their nestlings for at least three weeks after they have fledged.
Helleborine (Epipactis helleborine) is a common woodland plant which is easily overlooked due to its inconspicuous, small, greenish-purple flowers. However, this modest member of the Orchid family brings pollination to a new level. Its structure is said to not be morphologically attractive to insects, so Helleborine has come up with another strategy to get its flowers pollinated. It produces nectar that contains several chemicals, including oxycodone, a drug which has a morphine-like effect on organisms that ingest it. When insects drink the oxycodone-laced nectar, they become sluggish, which prolongs the amount of time they spend at the flower, which, in turn, increases the chances that the flower will be pollinated.
Abbott’s Sphinx Moth larvae feed on grape and Virginia creeper leaves during the night. During the day they tend to rest on the woody vines of the plants they are eating, and because they are well camouflaged, they remain hidden from most humans’ eyes. Both as larvae and adults, these moths are well equipped for survival. Older larvae have two color forms, one resembling unripe green grapes (in photo), and the other is brown and looks much like a branch. In their last stage, or instar, both forms have a rear eyespot which looks like a human eye, right down to the white reflection spot in it, which scares off potential predators. If the caterpillar is pinched or prodded, it squeaks and tries to bite the attacker. The adult moths, which emerge next summer after pupating all winter, also defend themselves with both color and behavior. They are brown with yellow bands on their underwings, which make them look something like a bumblebee, and when they fly, they create a buzzing noise. (Thanks to Heidi, Tom and Simmy Wetmore for photo op.)
Sundews are familiar to most people because of their carnivorous life style, trapping and dissolving insects with the glandular hairs that cover their leaves. As amazing as this ability to supplement their diet is, there is even more to admire about them. At this time of year, Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) unfurls a single curled-up stalk with flower buds running up one side of it. The buds open in succession, one at a time, when they reach the apex of the bending flower stalk, revealing tiny white or pink flowers.
Greater Fritillaries are a genus of butterflies that are also known as “silverspots” due to the silver spots many of them have beneath their hind wings. Greater Fritillaries in New England include the Great Spangled Fritillary , the Aphrodite Fritillary and the Atlantis Fritillary. It can be challenging to tell these three orange-dappled species apart. The black margins on the upper side of the pictured Atlantis Fritillary’s wings help identify it. This fritillary is named after Atlantis, a legendary island first mentioned by Plato. While adult Atlantis Fritillaries favor the nectar of milkweed, thistle, burdock and boneset, the brown and black-speckled larvae feed on violets.
When one thinks of an Eastern Kingbird, one pictures an aggressive bird launching itself from a branch into the air and gracefully swooping up an insect which is quickly consumed. Eastern Kingbirds are members of the Tyrant Flycatcher (Tyrranidae) family, and, as this name implies, feed primarily on insects. Thus, the sight of an Eastern Kingbird flying down to a blueberry bush and retrieving a blueberry was unexpected. Minutes after this picture was taken, the kingbird flew to its nest and placed the berry in the mouth of one of its nestlings. Unbeknownst to many, during cold and wet or hot and dry weather, especially as the summer progresses, an Eastern Kingbird’s diet is supplemented with many species of fruit, including cherries, serviceberries, blackberries, elderberries, nightshade and blueberries. During fall migration Eastern Kingbirds begin to eat a significant amount of fruit, and fruit makes up most of their diet on their South American wintering grounds.
According to the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, this spring and summer there’s been an estimated drop of 90% in the overall monarch population in eastern Canada – the most dramatic decline ever recorded. Vermont (and most likely New England in general) is experiencing much the same situation. The low numbers of monarchs are due to several factors that they have encountered along their migratory routes the past couple of years, including extreme temperatures, record drought, low nectar production by flowering plants and a scarcity of their host plant, milkweed. The cold temperatures and record amounts of rain this spring undoubtedly added to their stress.
Twenty minutes of observing air-borne visitors to a patch of roadside Chicory revealed nine different species of pollinators, including bees, flies and beetles. Most of the insects were bees, which makes sense, as honeybees, leafcutting bees and ground-nesting bees are the primary pollinators of this flower. Without exception, all of the pollinating insects were covered from head to toe with Chicory’s white pollen grains. As they circled the flowers’ stamens collecting pollen, the insects’ bodies were inadvertently dusted with some of it. Thanks to these diligent pollen-collectors and transporters, American Goldfinches and other seed-eating birds will be feeding on Chicory seeds come winter. (Electron microscopy by Igor Siwanowic and Scienceworks.)
Several recent studies demonstrate that wild birds are actively transporting ticks and their associated diseases during migration. In addition, a number of bird species are able to contract Borrelia burgdorferi (the bacterial causal agent of Lyme Disease infection) and transmit it to uninfected ticks that parasitize the birds for a blood meal. Since ground-feeding species such as Northern Cardinals, Gray Catbirds, Song Sparrows (pictured) and American Robins spend a significant amount of time foraging for food at the optimal height for ticks, they are excellent hosts and have all demonstrated the ability to infect larval ticks with Borrelia burgdorferi upon their first blood meal. (Look carefully at the Song Sparrow’s neck and you will find a tick.)
There is no way you can walk by the fruiting body of Pseudocolus fusiformis, a member of the Stinkhorn family Phallaceae, without noticing it. Its shape is markedly different from most fungi, in that it has three or four separate orange “arms” which are fused at the top. If your eyes don’t detect it, your nose most certainly will. Also known as “Stinky Squid,” this fungus emits a strong, putrid odor which comes from the dark green, spore-bearing slimy material (gleba) that is found on the inner surfaces of the arms. This smell attracts insects, primarily flies, which inadvertently disperse spores after visiting the fungus. Look for round egg-like whitish structures at the base of Pseudocolus fusimormis – these are young fruiting bodies that have yet to develop arms. (Thanks to Shiela Swett for photo op.)
A commonly held belief is that in order to be cross-pollinated, flowers have evolved to attract certain pollinators, including wind, mammals, birds and insects. These traits, or “pollination syndromes,” include the flower shape, color, odor, amount of nectar and flowering time. Flowers attractive to hummingbirds tend to be large, tubular-shaped and colored red, orange (or sometimes yellow). These flowers usually have a large supply of dilute nectar, which they secrete during the day. Since birds do not have a strong response to scent, the flowers they visit tend to be odorless.
Canada Lilies, found throughout eastern North America, have a distinct tubular shape, which appeals to Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Their long, thin beak allows these birds to reach nectar at the base of the flower that is inaccessible to many other creatures. In order to reach the nectar, the hummingbird must enter the flower far enough so that its neck and breast press up against the orange pollen-laden anthers of the Canada Lily. When the hummingbird moves on to the next Canada Lily flower, it is very likely that some of this pollen will end up on the flower’s female structure, or stigma, thereby pollinating the flower. (Note that the stigma, in the center of the flower, is taller than the anthers, thereby discouraging self-pollination.)
Backswimmers are aquatic insects that seek out prey as large as tadpoles and small fish. They row around ponds with their fringed hind legs and grasp prey with their front pair of legs. The piercing mouthparts that they use to kill their prey are also capable of giving humans who handle them carelessly a nasty bite (they are also known as “water wasps” for this reason). Because they spend most of their time on their back, their coloring is opposite that of most insects – backswimmers typically have a dark belly and a light-colored back, making them less conspicuous to predators (and prey) both above and beneath them. These tiny bugs can stay submerged for hours thanks to their ability to store air bubbles in two channels on their abdomen which are covered with inward-facing hairs. Backswimmers are often confused with Water Boatmen, which are not predaceous, do not bite, and swim “right side up.” Water Boatmen’s dark color and parallel lines on their backs help distinguish them from Backswimmers.
For the first few days of a loon chick’s life, both of its parents are ever-present, catching and delivering small fish, crayfish and invertebrates for their one or two chicks. Their initial buoyancy and their lack of experience prevent the chicks from procuring their own food for the first month or so, although they soon learn how to chase fish. During the first couple of weeks, the parent loon, having caught a crayfish, small fish or other prey, swims right up to its young and offers the chick its next meal. The chick grasps the food while it is still in its parent’s beak. The parent lets go, and the chick attempts to swallow the crayfish (in this case). In the beginning, the chick often drops its meal. The parent then dives down to retrieve it and once again offers the same crayfish to the chick. This sequence of events can happen over and over until the chick finally manages to hold onto and shift the crayfish into a head-first position in order to swallow it. By the third week this beak-to-beak service begins to be replaced by a practice designed to teach the chick how to capture its own meals. The parents start dropping the food they’ve caught for their chick into the water in front of them, forcing the chick to dive and develop the skills necessary for survival. (The pictured loon chick is well into its second week. Close examination reveals that the chick’s “egg tooth,” used to exit the egg, is still present at the tip of its beak. By week #3 it is not evident.)
In many areas the forest floor is now carpeted with flowering Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), the creeping, woody vine found in both deciduous and coniferous woods. The pairs of white flowers occur in two forms. In the first form (pictured) the pistil is short and the stamens are long; in the second form the pistil is long and the stamens are short. This structure prevents each flower from fertilizing itself. Both flowers must be pollinated to obtain a single scarlet berry. Each berry is the result of the fusion of each ovary of the pollinated pair of white flowers. As such, each berry has two bright red spots on its surface.
Dragonflies (and bees) have the largest compound eyes of any insect, each containing up to 30,000 facets, or ommatidia (house flies have 6,000). Each facet points in a slightly different direction and creates its own image, and the dragonfly’s brain compiles these thousands of images into one picture. This eye structure enables dragonflies to be extremely sensitive to motion. Because a dragonfly’s eyes wrap around its head, it can see in all directions at the same time (though its forward-looking vision is the sharpest). When capturing prey, a dragonfly doesn’t chase it – it intercepts it in mid-air, and it’s successful nearly 95% of the time. This hunting technique entails calculating the distance of its prey, the direction it’s moving and the speed that it’s flying – an impressive feat any tennis, baseball or football player would especially appreciate!
(Photo is looking down on the eyes of a Common Green Darner. Three simple eyes, or ocelli, are located in the black section below (above in the photo) its two tan compound eyes. The short, thin black lines are its antennae, which can detect wind direction and speed. The yellow section is part of the upper half of its face, or frons.)
Black-capped Chickadees tend to be early nesters, often as early as April, as they build their nest inside a cavity where it is sheltered from the cold. Chickadees rarely re-use a nest, so one might guess that this Black-capped Chickadee with nesting material in its beak in early July has a second brood on its way. However, it is unusual for Black-capped Chickadees to have a second brood of young after the first has fledged. If they lose the first brood, they sometimes will re-nest, but it’s more likely that this chickadee is just a late nester, as nest-building can and does occur up until mid-July. Both members of a pair excavate a cavity in a rotting tree, stump or post and then the female alone builds the nest inside the cavity. The foundation of the nest is usually made of coarse material such as moss. The lining consists of softer, finer material such as deer hair, rabbit fur, or in this case, an aging chocolate Labrador Retriever’s hair.
I owe my readers an apology. July 3rd’s post image was of a fishfly, not a stonefly. Adult stoneflies, fishflies and dobsonflies all have aquatic larval stages and the long-winged adults resemble each other quite closely. Mouthparts and antennae are helpful in distinguishing between the three. Fishflies (pictured) have small mandibles and feathery antennae, whereas dobsonflies and stoneflies have larger mandibles (especially the pincers of male dobsonflies) and their antennae are thread-like, not feathery. Fishflies and dobsonflies are in the same family (Coryalidae). Fishflies spend several years in the water as larvae before emerging as adult fishflies (that live up to a week). (Thank you to the observant readers who caught this mistake!)
In this photograph taken by Tom Nevins, a Common Gartersnake is swallowing prey — a Gray Treefrog — that is much larger than the snake’s mouth. It can do this because of the structure of its jaws. The quadrate bone, which attaches the upper and lower mandibles, is not rigidly attached. Rather, it pivots, allowing vertical and horizontal rotation of the jaw. In addition, the two pieces of the lower jaw (left and right) are connected in the front of the jaw by an elastic ligament, allowing each side of the lower jaw to move independently. Due to these adaptations, a snake can consume large prey by basically walking over it with its jaws.
Because moths need to use every little bit of light available in order to see in the dark, their eyes are highly non-reflective. (This is also helpful in decreasing the chances of predators spotting them.) Scientists, through biomimicry, have come up with a number of technological advances, including the development of a film that can be applied to solar cells which helps keep sunlight from being reflected off of them before the light can be utilized. Man-made materials based on the structure of moth eyes could someday reduce the radiation dosages received by patients getting x-rayed, while improving the resolution of the resulting images. Research on recreating the pattern found on moths’ eyes onto plastic could lead to reflection and glare-free display screens for televisions, cell phones, computer monitors, eyeglasses, speedometers and more.