An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide – maryholland505@gmail.com

July

The Sexual Strategy of Male Water Striders

Most people are familiar with Water Striders (Gerridae) insects that glide around on top of the water with the aid of water-repellent hairs on their feet that prevent them from breaking through the surface tension of the water. Something most people may not be familiar with is the duress that females are subjected to when it comes to strider reproduction.  

Female Water Striders, who can store sperm from a single mating for weeks, are biologically inclined not to prefer reproduction for a couple of reasons.  For one, after mating, the female has to carry to male around on her back for anywhere from a few minutes to two days, which seriously impairs her ability to forage for food.

Secondly, male Water Striders are the poster boys for sexual coercion, making it all but impossible for a female to reject their advances. With little if any warning, the male mounts a female.  The female now has a choice as to whether to accept his advances. If she chooses to reject them, she doesn’t open the hard genital shield that covers her genital opening. In response, the frustrated male starts strumming the surface of the water which attracts predators such as Backswimmers from below. Because the female is closest to the water, she will be the one who gets injured from any attacks.  Many a genital shield has been opened when the female has been put in this position. (Source: Beaty Biodiversity Museum) Photo: young Water Striders probably produced with the help of sexual coercion; inset-mating Water Striders)

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Objective: An Empty Nest

Note that the adult Osprey in the air above its nest has no fish clutched in its talons – it is not bringing food back to its young.  Rather, it is doing everything in its power to entice its offspring to take off and catch their own meal. 

An afternoon of observing juvenile Ospreys taking short flights from their nest assured me that the process of fledging had begun.  In the Northeast, young Ospreys usually remain at or near their nest for at least 10 – 20 days after they can fly, during which time their parents continue to bring fish to them.  (This seems quite generous, given that for the past two months both parents (primarily the father) have provided their offspring with food.) Finally, when the young are roughly three months old, the parents go all out to encourage their young to become self-sufficient and secure their own food.

On this particular day, the parents repeatedly soared over their nest and landed in distant trees while the young called out to them over and over. After several of these attempts to lure the juvenile birds away from the nest had failed, one of the parents flew to the nest and proceeded to hover for at least 30 seconds directly above the nest (see photo) before flying towards the nearest body of water. Still, the young birds didn’t budge.  True independence would have to wait at least for one more day.

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Rabbit Ears: Double Duty

The first thing you notice about a rabbit is its oversized ears which, as one might guess, enhance its ability to hear. The two ears can move independently of each other and can be rotated 270 degrees.

In addition to being designed to catch sound from any direction, rabbit ears regulate a rabbit’s body temperature. There is a very extensive network of blood vessels in a rabbit’s ears that provide a large surface area for heat exchange. These vessels swell (vasodilation) when the rabbit is hot, and contract (vasoconstriction) when it is cool, so much so that they are barely visible in cold weather. In the summer, the increased circulation of warm blood from the body’s core to the rabbit’s ears, where heat is lost to the cooler surrounding air, provides internal air-conditioning for the rabbit. (Photo: Eastern Cottontail)

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Ebony Jewelwings

Damselflies, smaller and more delicate versions of dragonflies, are predatory aerial insects found near streams and wetlands. The male Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryzx maculata) damselfly is aptly named.  Its pure black wings (the only dragonfly or damselfly in the Northeast with entirely black wings) and iridescent green head and abdomen are a striking combination.  The female lacks the iridescence of the male and its wings are dark but not quite black, with a distinct white spot (pterostigma) at the outer edge of both forewings. 

Ebony Jewelwings only live about two weeks.  During much of this time they can be found resting on leaves or branches in sunny spots of the forest, often near the slow-moving stream in which they spent their youth (most dragonfly and damselfly larvae are aquatic).

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Northern Mockingbirds Wing-flashing

Occasionally one comes across animal behavior that has yet to be understood by humans.  If you watch Northern Mockingbirds for any length of time, especially females, you are likely to see them stop and raise their wings half to fully open, in several progressively higher jerky movements.  When they do this, their white wing patches are fully exposed. 

Ornithologists are not of one mind as to what this behavior achieves. Perhaps it is anti-predator behavior – an attempt to scare would-be nest raiders away.  It could be a way of startling insects enough to make them move and thus easier to see and catch.  It also could be a form of territorial display/defense. Interestingly, mockingbird species that lack the white wing patches also engage in this behavior.

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Mystery Photo

If you think you recognize the subject of this Mystery Photo, please go to the Naturally Curious blog, scroll down to “Comments” and enter your thoughts.  Size:  3” x 1 ½”.  Hint:  found near a large body of water. (Discovered and submitted by Jody Crosby)

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Marsh Wrens Nesting

More often heard than seen, the Marsh Wren has a distinctive song that quickly alerts you to the fact that they are nesting in the area. Sung by the male at dawn, dusk and sometimes throughout the night, the song is a rapid series of gurgling and buzzy trills. Though each note may only last for 1–2 seconds, they can sing continuously for up to 20 minutes, rarely repeating the same note. To hear their song go to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Marsh_Wren/sounds .

Even though their nests are plentiful (males build multiple nests) they are well hidden and difficult to detect in amongst the cattails and bulrushes where they are built.  About 50% of males mate with two or more females and most males build at least six dummy nests for every female they mate with.  (In some parts of their range males build an average of 22 nests.) Scientists aren’t sure why the males build so many dummy nests – perhaps as decoys for predators.  They are built two to five feet above the ground and are about 7” tall and dome-shaped with an entrance hole in the upper half. Once the female has chosen one of the male’s nests or built her own, she lines it with strips of grass, sedge, cattail down, feathers, and rootlets.

Possibly as a result of intense competition for resources in the marsh environments in which they nest and raise young, Marsh Wrens routinely destroy the eggs of other birds, including other Marsh Wrens.  (Note:  Pictured active Marsh Wren nest was built in rushes, which are preferred over cattails later in the nesting season, when cattails have dried out.)

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Scorpionflies Feeding On Carcasses

You can recognize a Scorpionfly (Order Mecoptera) by its long head which bears mouthparts at the end of a long beak. Its common name comes from the tail of one family of scorpionflies in which the male scorpionfly has prominent genitalia that are curled back up over the insect’s body (much like a scorpion).  They are, however, harmless.   Scorpionflies feed only on dead insects and have been known to raid spider webs for their meal.

Males with insect carcasses are said to acquire receptive females with relative ease.  Lacking a carcass, males have been known to throw up and use the spittle as a lure for females who feed on it while copulating with the male. (Photo:  Scorpionfly drinking innards of dead caterpillar)

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Juvenile Ospreys Fledging

Their red eyes tell you that both of these Ospreys are this year’s young (adults have yellow eyes).  During the last week they are in the nest, the young often exercise their wings by hovering over the nest.  After their first flight, fledglings generally remain at the nest or nearby.  Eventually they begin hunting for themselves, but the parents continue to bring fish back to their young for ten to twenty days, supplementing the food that the young start to catch on their own.  Within a month or so of fledging the juvenile birds begin their migration south. (In the accompanying photograph, one fledgling is returning to the nest after quickly circling a nearby field while its parents were off fishing.  Dinner was delivered shortly thereafter.)

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Sibling Rivalry

The male Osprey typically provides fish for the chicks, often feeding first and then presenting the remainder to the female who tears the fish apart into small pieces and feeds it to the chicks.  When food is delivered, there can be significant aggression on the part of the older Osprey nestlings if the parent hasn’t fed them in a while.

Incubation begins with the first egg, so they hatch sequentially, producing a brood of chicks that are not  the same exact age.  Once dominance is established, the older chicks feed until satiated and then allow the younger ones to eat.  If food is scarce, it’s not unusual for the younger chicks to starve to death, but if food is plentiful, a peaceable kingdom reigns.

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Chestnut-sided Warbler Sitting On Eggs

Different species of birds have different numbers of broods (sets of eggs/young).  Eastern Bluebirds can have up to four broods per breeding season, American Robins up to three and Eastern Phoebes often two.  Chestnut-sided Warblers typically only raise one family in a summer. If weather or predation destroys their first attempt, however, they will re-nest, which is just what the pictured female Chestnut-sided Warbler is doing.

By August, a majority of birds have raised their young, but there are birds that nest late in the season, some naturally (American Goldfinches) and some, such as this Chestnut-sided Warbler, by necessity.  Where birds nest, geographically, affects the number of broods they have. Birds nesting at higher latitudes tend to produce fewer broods per year.  Because it gets colder earlier than further south, there is less time to raise their young.  In warmer regions, birds often raise two or even three broods per year. (Thanks to Dean and Susan Greenberg for photo op.)

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Weevil Watching

If you take a close look at the Black-eyed Susan blossoms that can be found in unmowed fields and roadsides this time of year, chances are good that you will find a tiny beetle called a weevil.  A weevil’s mouthparts are formed into a long snout, with one antenna on either side of it. The snout is used not only for feeding but also for making cavities in buds, fruits, seeds, stems, and roots of plants, where eggs are laid. When the weevil larvae emerge, they feed within the plant.

There are 60,000 species of weevils, all of which are herbivorous and most of which are less than ¼ ” long. Most of those found on Black-eyed Susans appear to be feasting on pollen. Many weevils are pests of plants such as cotton, alfalfa and wheat. You may have even found them inside your house devouring your cereal or flour.

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Beavers Feeding Young

In summer Beavers spend considerable time on land searching for, cutting and bringing vegetation back to their young in the lodge.  Their woody plant preference (they eat large amounts of herbaceous plants during the warmer months, but also some trees) tends towards the inner bark (cambium) of willow, aspen, maple, birch, cottonwood, beech, poplar, and alder trees. This beaver, however, has retrieved a Red Oak sapling for its offspring.

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Caterpillars Eating & Molting

The larval stage of a butterfly or moth is spent doing little but eating.  Only as a caterpillar will these insects have chewing mouthparts, and they waste no time in using them. As they eat, caterpillars increase in size and their skin (exoskeleton) becomes tighter and tighter, as it doesn’t grow larger.  The caterpillar grows a new, larger exoskeleton underneath the outer skin and then sheds, or molts, the old one. Most caterpillars molt five times.  At first, the new exoskeleton is very soft and not very protective, but it soon hardens. The shed exoskeleton is often eaten before the caterpillar ingests more plant food.

There are names for the caterpillar’s stage of development in between each molt, called “instars.”  When the caterpillar hatches from its egg, it is referred to as a “first instar” caterpillar.  After its first molt, the caterpillar is referred to as a “second instar,” and so on up until the exoskeleton is shed for the final time, revealing the chrysalis (if it’s a butterfly).

The Monarch in the photograph is a very new 4th instar instar caterpillar (see antennae which haven’t hardened).  It has shed three times.  Its third exoskeleton (which it has just shed) is on the milkweed leaf behind the caterpillar. To see a real-time video of a Monarch molting go to   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EbHyq3RwtxI.

(Thanks to Otis Brown for his keen eye in finding this Monarch caterpillar before it ate its just-molted skin.  Also to Ba Rea ((www.basrelief.org) for her instar confirmation.)

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Predaceous Diving Beetles Seeking Prey

There is a family of water beetles, Dytiscidae, known as Predaceous Diving Beetles.  As their name implies, these beetles are predatory.  They don’t hesitate to attack prey larger than themselves, delivering a sharp bite with their jaws to small fish, tadpoles and frogs.  They then immediately inject enzymes that digest the prey so that the juices can be ingested.

Predaceous Diving Beetle larvae, called “water tigers,” are also predators, grabbing prey with their pincer-like jaws. The larvae are elongated, flattened and can be 2 inches long. They hunt by holding still, waiting with jaws wide open, and then strike suddenly, clutching the prey tightly with their jaws. As with the adults, the pincers are hollow, enabling them to begin sucking the juices of their prey while grasping it. They are often seen when they come to the surface of the water to draw air into spiracles located at the hind end of the body.

Adult Predaceous Diving Beetles are collected by young girls in East Africa. It is believed that inducing the beetles to bite their nipples will stimulate breast growth. Having recently had my toe bitten by a Predaceous Diving Beetle, I can testify that this is not a practice that most females (or males) would enjoy. (Photo: Predaceous Diving Beetle with remains of prey)

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Red Elderberry Attracts Wildlife Year Round

The pollinated and fertilized white flowers of Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) have recently developed into the red fruit for which this plant is named. Many people are familiar with its relative, Common Elderberry (S. canadensis), which produces dark purple fruit that is used to make jams, jellies, pies and elderberry wine.  While Red Elderberry fruit can be used to make all of these, its raw berries are toxic.  Red Elderberry’s popularity is greatest with pollinators, birds and four-footed mammals.

The cyanide-producing toxins in its flowers, (raw) fruit, stems, bark, leaves and roots do not seem to discourage wildlife’s attraction to Red Elderberry.  The odor of its flowers, its nectar, and its highly nutritious pollen attract many ants, bees, wasps and flies.  At least 50 species of songbirds eat the bright red fruits, including red-eyed vireos, ruffed grouse, song sparrows, gray catbirds, brown thrashers, and thrushes. Squirrels, mice, raccoons, and black bears also eat the fruit. Porcupines, mice and snowshoe hares eat the buds and bark in winter. The foliage is usually avoided by herbivores, although white-tailed deer and moose browse on it occasionally.

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Survival Through Mimicry: The Viceroy Butterfly

The survival of Viceroy butterflies in all of their life stages is significantly enhanced by mimicry.  A Viceroy egg resembles a tiny plant gall.  Both larva and pupa bear a striking resemblance to bird droppings.  And the similarity of a Viceroy to a Monarch is well known. For years it was thought that this mimicry was Batesian in nature – a harmless organism (Viceroy) mimicking a poisonous (Monarch) or harmful one in order to avoid a mutual predator.  However, recently it’s been discovered that the Viceroy butterfly is as unpalatable as the Monarch, which means that  mimicry in its adult stage is technically Mullerian – both organisms are unpalatable/noxious and have similar warning mechanisms, such as the adult butterfly’s coloring.

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True Bugs

7-15-19 damsel bug 0U1A0251Although the term “bug” is commonly used to refer to just about any insect, there is a specific order of insects (Hemiptera) that are considered “true bugs” and allies. All insects in this order possess a syringe-like beak that they use to suck the liquefied contents out of plants or animals. Their lower lip forms a sheath that contains four blades. One pair of blades (mandibles) is for cutting and the other pair (maxillae) is for spitting and sucking. The maxillae combine to make a tube with two channels, one for sucking food up and the other for spitting saliva (containing enzymes that dissolve tissue) back into the food.

Some of the insect-eating true bugs may be familiar to you – assassin bugs, ambush bugs and damsel bugs (named for their diminutive size) are among them. Nabicula subcoleoptrata (pictured) is a common black, ant-like damsel bug known for its aggressive predation. Look for it in meadows, where it frequently preys on an introduced bug, the Meadow Plant Bug (Leptopterna dolabrata). In this photograph, it has successfully preyed upon and consumed a small larva, identity unknown.

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Lady Fern Spores Maturing

Ferns are non-flowering plants which reproduce by spores, not seeds, and have a vascular system that transports fluids (unlike mosses, algae and liverworts).  Spores are typically located inside a capsule, or sporangium.  In many species of ferns, clusters of sporangia, called sori, are borne on the underside or margins of their fronds.  Often an indusium, or protective flap of tissue, covers each sorus, protecting the developing sporangia.  If you like to be able to give a fern a name, you will find that the shapes and arrangement of sori are a valuable identification tool.

Northern Lady Fern, Athyrium filix-femina, is a fairly common fern found in moist woods, swamps, thickets and fields.  It appears quite lacy and often grows in a somewhat circular cluster.  There are two distinguishing characteristics which are particularly helpful in recognizing Lady Fern.  One is its eyebrow-shaped sori.  If you look on the underside of a spore-bearing frond you will find that each sori is slighted curved, or arched, like an eyebrow.  The other diagnostic feature is the scattered thin, dark brown scales that are found on the stipe – the section of the fern’s stem between the ground and where the leafy frond begins.

This time of year, when the spores of many fern species are maturing, is a good time to learn the different ferns in the Northeast.  There are many excellent field guides to ferns.  One that you can easily tuck into your pocket is Lynne Levine’s Identifying Ferns the Easy Way.

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Common Loon Chicks Riding High

July on a lake occupied by nesting Common Loons is a birder’s slice of heaven.  Eggs are hatching, day-old fluff balls are riding high on their parents’ backs, parents are busy catching and delivering small fish and crayfish to their chicks, and survival lessons are being given. Recently while watching a pair of two- or three-day-old chicks whose parents were off obtaining their offspring’s next meal I observed a juvenile Bald Eagle, known predator of Common Loon chicks, soaring overhead.  Within a split second both loon chicks dove and stayed submerged long enough for the eagle to give up the ghost. Nature or nurture?

To see a related entertaining phenomenon, go to https://loonproject.org/2019/06/29/unlikely-allies/?fbclid=IwAR0po44dJaElcyYpqKqLwaz9A6gs7RxWfhJRkoB-QleC7sUGnjgElksR5G4.

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Monarch Butterfly Larvae Are Cannabalistic

The very first meal that a Monarch Butterfly caterpillar eats is its own eggshell.  In order to hatch, it eats its way out of the egg, and then polishes off the remainder of the eggshell.  It then starts to wander around the leaf and if it finds another Monarch egg, it will start to eat it.

Female Monarch Butterflies lay 300-500 eggs over two to five weeks of egg-laying. Normally, a Monarch only lays one egg at a time (on the underside of a tender, young milkweed leaf).  It is fairly rare to find more than one egg on a leaf, or even on the same plant.  After a female lays an egg, several seconds up to a minute goes by before she lays another egg (referred to as a refractory period). During this time she usually moves on and finds another milkweed plant on which to lay the next egg.  This lapse of time between the laying of each egg probably evolved to discourage the laying of multiple eggs on one leaf and to encourage the dispersal of a female’s eggs on different milkweed plants so as to decrease the chances of cannibalism occurring.

According to Dr. Lincoln Brower, renowned Monarch entomologist, a cluster of Monarch eggs on any given milkweed leaf indicates that either milkweed is in short supply, or the female that laid the eggs is either sick, very old or she has been flying for a very long time and several eggs have matured.

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Bumble Bee-Mimicking Robber Flies

7-10-19 robber fly 0U1A0212Robber flies are a special group of predatory flies that possess stout, spiny legs, a dense moustache of bristles on the front of the head (mystax) that protects the robber fly’s head when it encounters struggling or stinging prey, and three simple eyes in a depression between two large compound eyes.

Certain robber flies resemble bumble bees. The evolutionary advantages of a harmless organism mimicking a harmful organism (Batesian mimicry) include deterring predators that are fearful of stinging bees. In addition, it also makes it more likely that a potential prey insect will come closer to the bee mimic, thinking the “bee” is looking for nectar or pollen, not a meaty meal.

A quick way to distinguish a robber fly from a bumble bee is to look at the antennae and wings. Flies usually have short, stubby antennae; bees, including bumble bees, have “elbowed” antennae (an obvious joint). Flies have two wings, while bumble bees (and most other insects) have four. The pointed, stout proboscis, bearded face, fleshy feet and long, tapering abdomen of robber flies are also identifying characteristics. (Photo: Laphria thoracica piercing a click beetle between the beetle’s hardened outer wings (elytra) in order to inject enzymes which will eventually allow the robber fly to drink its prey.)

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Black Swallowtail Larvae Defending Themselves

7-8-19 black swallowtail larva 0U1A0103Caterpillars, the larval stage of moths and butterflies, are very susceptible to predators (escaping quickly is not an option). Much of their energy in this stage is devoted to defense mechanisms to thwart would-be predators. A partial list of these defenses includes irritating bristles with detachable tips (Tussock Moths), toxic “breath” (Tobacco Hornworms, consumers of tomato plants, tobacco and other plants in the nightshade family, release toxic, bad-smelling nicotine), toxic bodies (Monarchs) and anti-coagulant venom (Giant Silkworm Moths).

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) larvae defense mechanism strategies change as they develop. In early stages, or instars, they mimic bird droppings (not an appealing meal for most predators) and older larvae possess bright yellow-orange, horn-like organs behind the head known as osmeteria (see photo inset). When threatened, larvae rear up, extrude the osmeterium, and attempt to smear potential predators with a chemical repellent.

Black Swallowtail larvae are frequently sought after by parasitoids, which can locate their hosts by chemicals in the hosts’ feces (frass). To decrease their chances of being parasitized, Black Swallowtail larvae toss their fecal pellets away from themselves with their mandibles.

To learn much more about both moth and butterfly larvae, go to http://www.thecaterpillarlab.org.

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Pileated Woodpeckers Fledging

7-5-19 junior about to fledge 0U1A0832When your children start to get this feisty, it’s time for them to leave the nest!

Between three and a half and four weeks of age, Pileated Woodpecker nestlings fledge. Their flight feathers are about 75% of adult size when they depart. Some fledglings are capable of sustained flight when they leave the nest, while others may need several days before they can fly any distance.

Initially parents and siblings stay in the vicinity of the nest, but once the young can fly well, they follow adults everywhere. All the young may stay with both parents, or the parents may split up and each take some of the young. The fledglings will remain with their parents into September. (Photo: male Pileated Woodpecker nestling about to fledge while his father watches.) Much gratitude to Amber Jones and Dave Bliven for sharing their deck, their sweet dog Briggs and their magnificent view of this Pileated Woodpecker family with me.

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