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American Crow Bills Used As Tools

1-13-16  American crow tracks 147American crows obtain most of their food on the ground as they walk along in search of seeds, insects, frogs, snakes, bird nests and small mammals. Their hunting techniques are varied and most involve the use of their bill. In search of invertebrates, crows will probe the soil with their bill, flick aside leaves, dig in the soil and even lift cow paddies. They fish for tadpoles and dig nearly an inch deep with their bill for clams. In winter, their foraging continues and as these tracks indicate, when the snow is only a few inches deep they will walk around and around in a given area, probing tufts of grass for hibernating insects, mice, voles, or any other form of life these opportunists find.

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Goldenrod Ball Galls Provide Important Source of Winter Food for Downy Woodpeckers

12-11-15 goldenrod ball galls 058A number of insects cause goldenrod plants to form galls – abnormal growths that house and feed larval insects. The Goldenrod Ball Gall is caused by a fly, Eurosta solidaginis. The fly lays an egg on the stem of a Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) plant in early spring, the egg hatches and the larva burrows its way into the stem; the plant reacts by forming a gall around the larva. The larva overwinters inside the gall, pupates in late winter and emerges in early spring as an adult fly. Prior to pupating, the larva chews an exit tunnel to, but not through, the outermost layer of gall tissue. (As an adult fly it will not have chewing mouthparts so it is necessary to do this work while in the larval stage.)

Downy Woodpeckers (and Black-capped Chickadees) have discovered this abundant source of winter food, and dine on the larva after chiseling a hole into the gall. Downy Woodpeckers tend to make a tidy,narrow, conical hole by pecking, while Black-capped Chickadees tend to make a messy, large, irregular hole by grabbing bits of the gall with their bill and tugging them free. While woodpeckers prefer larger galls that are located high on goldenrod plants growing near wooded areas, these are not the only factors taken into consideration.

A woodpecker extracts the fly larva through the tunnel the larva excavates prior to pupating, as this facilitates rapid removal of the larva. Downy Woodpeckers can determine whether or not a gall has an exit tunnel, and if it doesn’t, they usually abandon the gall without drilling into it. The likelihood of smaller parasitic wasp larvae occupying the gall (and a plump fly larva not being present) is much greater if there is no exit tunnel, and these smaller prey apparently are not always worth the woodpecker’s time or energy.

NB: Correction: this week’s Mystery Photo was of a Gray Birch (Betula populifolia) bract, not a Paper, or White, Birch (Betula papyrifera) bract. While similar, there are differences between these two species of birch that I should have recognized (especially when looking at the leaf!). Thanks to Kathy, an alert blog reader, who caught this error.

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Today’s Post Unintentionally Published Early

11-30-15 western conifer seed bug IMG_1133In case you missed it last night, here it is!

Roughly 30 years ago Western Conifer Seed Bugs (Leptoglossus occidentalis) started moving east. They are now well established coast to coast. Here in the East they seek shelter during the winter, often choosing to share our domiciles with us. Fear not – though they look fairly menacing, they will do you no harm. Western Conifer Seed Bugs do not bite or sting, and in their semi-dormant condition they do not feed or breed. If you choose not to co-habit with these bugs, be forewarned. When disturbed, they can emit a noxious smell.

In the spring they will vacate your house and feed on the sap of the young cones and flowers of conifers, including Eastern White Pine, Red Pine, Scotch Pine, White Spruce and Eastern Hemlock. Mating takes place, eggs are laid and the young nymphs feed on conifer seeds which they find by detecting the infrared radiation that the cones emit.
These bugs are also called “leaf-footed bugs,” and if you look at their hind legs you will see that a section, the tibia, is flattened. Some species display this specialized leg structure during courtship, and others may use it for defense purposes.

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Blackberry Psyllids Heading for Conifers

11-9-15 blackberry psyllid 101Occasionally you see a wild Blackberry bush with leaves that have stunted growth and are often curled up. This malformation is due to the Blackberry Psyllid (Trioza tripunctata), also known as the Jumping Plant Louse. Closely related to aphids and scale insects, psyllids are plant-feeding bugs which typically have one specific host on which they feed and lay their eggs. Blackberry Psyllids, small, cicada-like insects that hold their wings tent-like over their body, feed only on Blackberry and in so doing, cause this leaf distortion.

Blackberry Psyllids have one generation per year. The adults mate and lay eggs (39-202) on Blackberry bushes in early summer. The nymphs, small and wingless, also feed on the sap of Blackberries. They are often found inside the curled leaves during the summer months where they secrete several types of waxy structures as they feed. In the fall the nymphs mature and overwinter as adults in conifers (pines, spruces and cedars) prior to returning to Blackberry bushes in the spring. If Blackberries are one mile or more from conifers, no psyllid damage will be found; those growing within one-eighth of a mile from conifers are at the greatest risk of psyllid damage.

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Bald-faced Hornet Nests No Longer Inhabited (if you live where there has been a hard frost)

Mary Holland holding very large wasp nest, which was built above her houseIf you research bald-faced hornet nests you will find that their average size is often compared to that of a football or basketball. The maximum size is said to be between 14 and 18 inches in diameter, and up to 23 or 24 inches in length. The pictured nest (which hung 20 feet above the roof of my house) measures 14 inches wide and 29 inches long – far larger than the average hornet nest!

This entire nest was built in roughly four months. It was started by a queen bald-faced hornet that, after emerging from hibernation this past spring, chewed some wood fiber, mixed it with her saliva and created a few brood cells surrounded by one or more paper “envelopes.” She laid an egg in each cell, and fed the hornet larvae insects which she first masticated into tiny bits. When the larvae pupated and emerged as adult workers, they assumed the duties of nest building, food collection, feeding the larvae and protecting the nest, while the queen continued laying eggs in horizontal tiers of cells. This ongoing activity produced a colony of anywhere from 100 to 400 workers by the end of the summer. Shortly before the first hard frost this fall, the queen left the colony and found a protected spot in which to spend the winter. When freezing temperatures arrived, the workers all died, leaving a nest that will never again be inhabited by bald-faced hornets. (Thanks to Nick Burnham, who ingeniously managed to collect the nest for me, and Gary Trachier for the photo.)

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Dung Beetle Feeding on Bear Scat

10-16 dung beetle 127Wherever there is scat, or dung, there are dung beetles. This is a photograph of a dung beetle in heaven as it has located a black bear’s gigantic (apple-filled) scat, which will provide it with food for a long, long time. Some species of dung beetles (rollers) shape pieces into balls and roll them away and bury them to eat later or lay their eggs on. Some species (tunnelers) bury their dung by tunneling underneath the pile of scat. And a third group (dwellers) actually lives inside dung piles.

Most dung beetles prefer the scat of herbivores. There are always bits of food that do not get digested, and these bits are what a dung beetle feeds on. Dung beetle larvae eat the solids, while adult beetles drink the liquids contained in the scat. A given species of dung beetle typically prefers the dung of a certain species or group of animals, and does not touch the dung of any other species.

Dung beetles have a brain that is the size of a grain of rice, yet they are very sophisticated insects. They use celestial clues (the Milky Way) in order to roll balls of dung in a straight line. Dung beetles are known for “dancing,” which helps them orient themselves after their path has been disrupted. They use their dung balls to regulate their temperature, and cool off. (In very warm climates, around noon, when the sun is at its peak, dung beetles will routinely climb atop their dung balls to give their feet a break from the hot ground. Thermal imaging has shown that dung balls are measurably cooler than the surrounding environment, probably because of their moisture content.) And dung beetles keep track of the number of steps they take and the direction from which they came (instead of landmarks) in order to return to their nest with a ball of dung.

Even though they are remarkably clever, dung beetles can be duped! A flowering plant native to South Africa (Ceratocaryum argenteum) produces large, round nuts that are strikingly similar in appearance, smell, and chemical composition to antelope droppings, which the dung beetles accordingly roll away and bury, effectively sowing a new generation of C. argenteum.

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Snowberry Clearwing Larvae Pupating

snowberry clearwing larvae 125The Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis), a type of Sphinx moth, is one of several daytime-flying “hummingbird moths,” so-called because of their ability to hover while drinking nectar from a flower, and because of the humming sound they make, much like a hummingbird. The yellow and black bands of the Snowberry Clearwing’s abdomen also cause it to be mistaken for a bumblebee. The most distinctive thing about this moth is that a large portion of its wings are transparent, due to scales falling off.

Snowberry Clearwings are often seen around the time that beebalm is in bloom, in July and August. The females entice the males with a pheromone that they produce from glands at the tip of their abdomen. After mating, the females lay their tiny, round, green eggs on their larval food plants. Like many Sphinx moths, the larvae have “horns” at the end of their bodies. Most Snowberry Clearwing larvae are green, but they can be brown, as well. Both colors enable them to be well camouflaged as they feed on the leaves of honeysuckle, viburnum, hawthorn, snowberry, cherry, mint, and plum. The caterpillars are active until late fall, when they drop to the ground, spin a loose cocoon and pupate, partially protected by leaf litter. The pupa spends the winter hidden under the leaves, and the adult moth emerges the following spring. (Thanks to Tom Wetmore and Heidi Marcotte for photo opportunity.)

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