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Archive for June, 2012

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth

Of all the insects I’ve found in milkweed patches over the years, the Hummingbird Clearwing is one of my favorites. It is a species of sphinx moth, named for its habit of hovering at flowers while it gathers nectar with its proboscis in a manner similar to that of hummingbirds. In fact, they are often mistaken for hummingbirds. The transparent wings, light brown thorax and dark chestnut abdomen are the field marks to look for. A diurnal moth, the Hummingbird Clearwing can often be found during the day in milkweed patches.


Milkweed Visitors

Milkweed is in full bloom right now, presenting the perfect opportunity for young and old alike to discover the multitude of butterflies, beetles, bees and other insects that are attracted to these magnificent flowers. If you visit a milkweed patch, don’t leave before getting a good whiff of the flowers’ scent – one of the sweetest on earth. How many of the insects you find are carrying milkweed’s yellow pollen “saddlebags” on their feet? You might want to check out my children’s book, MILKWEED VISITORS, which I wrote after spending the better part of one summer photographing the various insects I found visiting a milkweed patch. ( http://basrelief.org/Pages/MV.html )


Liverworts

Liverworts, along with mosses and hornworts, are classified by botanists as bryophytes – non-flowering plants that lack vascular (conductive) tissue. It is possible, even likely, that liverworts were among the first plants to make the transition to life on land. Their appearance varies according to the stage in which you see them, but the plants we think of when we think of liverworts are very small (less than an inch in diameter and about 4 inches in length) and can be relatively flat, growing very close to the ground. Liverworts have two basic stages, the dominant one being the flattish, leaf-like gametophyte. It produces male sex organs (antheridia) which produce sperm and female organs (archegonia) which produce eggs. The stalked, fringed, palm tree-like structures in the photograph are egg-producing archegonia, and the stalked, lobed structures are antheridia. Both are less than an inch tall and are produced on the same plant (unlike 80% of liverwort species that produce their sex organs on separate plants). The sperm must reach an egg in order for fertilization to take place, and it usually does this by swimming through rain water or dew. Once fertilization occurs, the second stage of the plant, or sporophyte, develops. The sporophyte produces spores, some of which will grow into gametophytes and the cycle (called alternation of generations) will repeat itself.


Luna Moths

Yesterday’s post was, as you quickly guessed, an eyespot from the forewing of a Luna Moth, Actias luna, one of North America’s giant silkworm moths. With a wingspan up to 4 ½,” it is one of our largest moths. Markings that resemble eyes are found not only on moths, but also on butterflies, birds, fish and reptiles. When they occur on butterflies and moths, eyespots are usually on the wings and are thought to scare off potential predators as well as to direct attacks away from vital body parts. After emerging from their cocoons, Luna Moths live for only about a week, during which time their sole mission is to mate. Like many other ephemeral insects, Luna Moths have no mouthparts and thus, do not eat as adults. (The phenomenal number of Luna Moths this summer may, in part, be due to the mild winter we had, which allowed more pupae to survive.)


Mystery Photo

Whose “eye” is looking at you?


How Toads Breathe

Like all amphibians, toads breathe through their skin as well as with their lungs. When a toad is inactive the skin usually absorbs enough oxygen to meet its needs. During and after activity a toad often supplements its supply of oxygen by actively breathing air into its lungs. Unlike mammals, amphibians do not make regular and rhythmic breathing movements but bring air into their lungs spasmodically as the need arises. Air enters the toad’s mouth through its nostrils, and by raising the floor of its mouth, the toad forces the air into its lungs. (Photo is of an American Toad.)


Red Grasshopper Mites

The next time you’re in a field, stop and take a close look at a few of the grasshoppers you find there. Chances are great that you will see tiny, red mites on some of them. These Red Grasshopper Mites, close relatives of ticks and spiders, go through three stages: larva, nymph and adult. The larvae (6-legged) attach to the base of a grasshopper’s wings, where they suck the grasshopper’s blood. The nymphs and adults (both 8-legged) are free-living and feed on grasshopper eggs. Each Red Grasshopper Mite nymph requires more than two grasshopper eggs to become an adult. An adult male Red Grasshopper Mite requires three grasshopper eggs for reproducing, and each female, seven to eight eggs. After breeding, a female mite deposits up to 4,000 eggs. Entomologists believe that mites reduce grasshopper survival and reproduction dramatically.


Blue-eyed Grass

It’s easy to miss Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), as its flower is only about ½” in diameter and the plant only reaches a height of six to twelve inches. Blue-eyed Grass is a member of the Iris family, not, as its name implies, a member of the Grass family, although it does have stiff, grass-like leaves. Dark lines on its petals and sepals may well serve as nectar guides, leading pollinators to the yellow center. Each blossom is open for only a day at most. Typically you find Blue-eyed grass growing in sunny, wet fields, often on elevated soil — Thoreau noted that if you followed Blue-eyed Grass through a wet meadow, you could keep your feet dry.


Ruffed Grouse Eggs Hatching

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If you stumble, as I did, upon a female Ruffed Grouse whose eggs have recently hatched, be prepared for her fury! When I entered nearby woods, the mother charged at me with her crest raised, tail spread and ruffs (black neck feathers) erect. (Her chicks had dispersed prior to this, well hidden by their camouflaged down.) Fiercely protective, female grouse with young are known for their aggressive behavior. A large grouse might weigh two pounds – to tackle a human weighing more than 50 times as much as oneself is pretty impressive.


Wolf Spider Mother and Spiderlings

Two common spiders that we often see carrying their egg sacs are the wolf spider and the nursery web spider. Wolf spiders attach their egg sacs to their spinnerets, whereas nursery web spiders carry them with their mouthparts. When nursery web spiders are about to hatch, the mother puts her egg sac into a silk tent she has spun, and they live there for a week or so. When a wolf spider’s spiderlings emerge from their egg sac, they climb up onto their mother’s abdomen and cling to it while their mother continues to hunt for food. After about a week, when partially grown, the spiderlings disperse, either by ballooning through the air on silk strands or simply by scurrying off along the ground.


Pitcher Plant Flowers

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The Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea) is a well-known carnivorous plant of bogs. It gets some of its nutrients by trapping and drowning prey in rain water that is caught inside a modified leaf that forms a cup. While most people are familiar with the leaves of Pitcher Plants, unless you visit a bog in June, you’re not likely to see their unique flower. It is curved over when it’s mature and its sepals (modified leaves that protect the bud and are located above the petals in these photographs) are red-purple and pointed; the petals are red and rounded. An approaching insect would be guided into the flower between two of the sepals–it would land on a petal and climb into the flower onto the umbrella-shaped stigma (the sticky top of the female pistil) which I inverted in one photograph in order to show the male pollen-producing stamens. An insect entering the flower would brush against the stamens, collecting pollen on its back while pollen from a previously-visited Pitcher Plant would fall off the insect onto the sticky stigma on which it was standing, pollinating the flower.


White Admiral Butterflies Puddling

If you’ve been traveling on sunny dirt roads lately, chances are that you have seen White Admiral butterflies all over them. They are in the road to obtain salts and minerals that have leached from the soil into standing puddles and moist dirt. Because butterflies do not have chewing mouthparts as adults, they must drink their meals. While nectar is their main source of nutrition, males often supplement their diet with these minerals. The act of acquiring nutrients in this manner is referred to as “puddling.” If there’s no water around, a butterfly may regurgitate into the soil and then drink in the hope of retrieving minerals. In addition to finding butterflies on dirt roads, look for them puddling on animal scat.


Great Northern Loon Eggs Hatching

Like many flowering plants that blossomed two or three weeks early this year, Great Northern Loons (previously called Common Loons) got an early start to their nesting season. While some adults are still sitting on eggs, some chicks can be seen hitching a ride with their parents. Even though chicks can swim as soon as their down dries, their inability to regulate their body temperature for the first two weeks and their need for protection from predators at this vulnerable time, they are brooded on the backs and under the wings of their parents. After a couple of weeks, however, the chicks are under their own steam and can be seen bobbing in the water near their parents.  (Kayakers and photographers — extreme caution should be taken to avoid approaching loon nesting areas too close at this time of year.)


Showy Lady’s Slipper

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Classified as imperiled in New Hampshire, vulnerable in Vermont, rare in Maine, endangered in Connecticut and down to 14 sites in all of Massachusetts, the Showy Lady’s Slipper is the highlight of every June for those in the Northeast who are lucky enough to live near a spot where it grows. The rarity of this orchid is attributable to a lack of suitable habitat, as well as the browsing of white-tailed deer. Showy Lady’s Slippers are typically found in fens, a type of wetland which is not as acidic as a bog. Because it reproduces mostly by underground rhizomes (even though one flower may produce a half-million seeds), it often occurs in clumps, giving the false impression that Showy Lady’s Slippers are abundant. According to Minnesota’s Dept. of Natural Resources, where Showy Lady’s Slipper is the state flower (but also very rare), it has a long life span — some may live as long as 100 years.


Ladybug Metamorphosis

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Much to my delight, many of you knew that yesterday’s mystery photo was none other than the larval stage of a ladybug (referred to as a “ladybird beetle” by entomologists, as it is not a true bug, but a beetle). I remember when I first learned what the different stages of a ladybug’s life cycle looked like – I couldn’t believe that this miniature alligator-like creature turned into a sweet little ladybug. Approximately 88% of all insects pass through four separate stages (complete metamorphosis: egg, larva, pupa, adult) by the time they reach adulthood. Ladybugs are one of these insects. The first three stages of a ladybug’s life each last anywhere from 7 to 21 days, depending on weather and food supply. An adult ladybug lives for 3 to 9 months. The larvae of all ladybug species (there are approximately 450 in New England) have a similar appearance. Yesterday’s larva, as well as today’s pupa (and accompanying shed larval skin) and adult, are  Multicolored Asian Ladybugs.


Mystery Photo

This is the larval stage of a very common insect. Do you know what it turns into? (I.D. provided 6-13-12)


Moose Flies and Moose

My recent quest for finding moose was successful – and my most striking observation, other than their imposing size, was the presence of a multitude of flies on and around the hindquarters of every moose I saw. I assumed they were deer flies, but they didn’t appear to be bothering the moose and research revealed that, in fact, they were moose flies, Haematobosca alcis. These flies can be seen throughout the spring and summer in dense swarms over and on the rumps of moose — five hundred or more may accompany a single moose. Unlike most other biting insects, both male and female moose flies feed on their host’s blood. Although not considered a serious pest (moose tend to pay little attention to them), moose flies may be responsible for sores often found on the hind legs of moose. It is thought that female moose flies may be stimulated by gases released by the moose when it is defecating, after which the female flies descend and deposit eggs into crevices in the moose’s scat.


Cecropia Moth

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Who would ever associate a lime green caterpillar with colored knobs with a large, brown moth? Thanks to someone’s keen observation, we know that these are both stages of one and the same insect — a Cecropia Moth. It is North America’s largest native moth — individuals with a wing span of over six inches have been documented. Cecropia Moths are emerging from their 3-inch cocoons this month, as are other giant silk moths, including the Luna Moth and Prometheus Moth.
NOTICE: I will be away for the next week in northern Maine, trying to photograph the largest member of the deer family. Blogs will resume on Monday, June 11.


Live Camera on Loon Nest!

One chick has hatched, one egg remains.  Incredible footage!  Had to share with all of you. http://www.mnbound.com/live-loon-cam/


Great Blue Heron Nests

Great Blue Heron chicks are getting big enough so that you can easily observe them (can you find all four?). Occasionally you can even detect flies and other insects buzzing about them, which, given the fact that nest sanitation is not a priority for herons, is not surprising. While the parents do toss the eggshells out of the nest, feces, partly eaten prey and even dead chicks often remain in the nest. Also, parents feed their young by regurgitating into the nest and the chicks will regurgitate when disturbed. Unlike most song birds, Great Blue Herons re-use their nest year after year. It is quickly apparent why they add more sticks and boughs to their nest every breeding season – were that housekeeping for humans was that simple!


Fledglings

Baby birds like this robin are starting to fledge, and it’s the time of year when we see them on the ground, looking very vulnerable. Often we assume that such a bird has been abandoned, and with all good intentions attempt to “rescue” it and finish raising it ourselves. Young birds recently out of the nest are still cared for by their parents for several days, but the parents aren’t always in sight. Usually one parent is nearby, keeping an eye on its fledglings, feeding them and teaching them survival techniques such as where to find food and water and how to avoid predators – skills humans can’t provide. If a bird has feathers, is hopping around, and has a tail an inch or so long, it has probably fledged and not fallen from its nest accidentally. A good rule of thumb is to watch the bird for at least two hours to see if a parent comes to it before taking it to the nearest bird rehabilitator.


Spittlebugs

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Have you ever poked around inside one of those masses of bubbles that you see on grass and other plant stems? If so, chances are that you have discovered that an insect actually lives inside this frothy home – the immature stage (nymph) of a Spittlebug. It hangs head down while piercing the stem of the plant and ingests the sap. Because the sugar content is often very low, the nymph must drink a lot of sap in order to get the nutrition it needs. As a result, the Spittlebug pumps out the excess water from the tip of its abdomen, which amounts to 150 – 300 times its weight every 24 hours. During this process, oxygen and nymphal secretions cause the water to have a sticky, bubbly quality, and these sticky bubbles pour down over the nymph, creating a moist home that prevents the Spittlebug nymph from drying out and that discourages predators as it tastes bad. Once it has matured, the nymph metamorphoses into an adult Spittlebug (also called a Froghopper) and flies away.  (Photographs are of:  spittlebug “spit,” spittlebug nymph and adult spittlebug emerging from nymphal skin.)