Sunday, August 26, 2012

White Egrets

Two white egrets are commonly seen in New York City: the snowy egret, Egretta thula, and the great egret, Ardea alba. Both are large white long-legged wading birds. Beginning birders confuse them, but a close look quickly separates them.

The snowy egret has yellow feet and a black bill. 
The great egret has black feet and a yellow bill. 
The question does not even come up if they are standing side by side because the great egret is about three feet tall, while the snowy is closer to two feet. Both kinds will fly south soon to their wintering grounds, so there is not much time left this year to compare white egrets.

The awkward elegance of egrets inspires poetry. Here is one of my favorites -- it is inscribed at the turtle pond in the Children's Zoo in Central Park.

Egrets by Judith Wright

Once as I travelled through a quiet evening, 
I saw a pool, jet-black and mirror-still. 
Beyond, the slender paperbarks stood crowding;
each on its own white image looked its fill, 
and nothing moved but thirty egrets wading - 
thirty egrets in a quiet evening. 

Once in a lifetime, lovely past believing, 
your lucky eyes may light on such a pool. 
As though for many years I had been waiting, 
I watched in silence till my heart was full
of clear dark water, and white trees unmoving, 
and, whiter yet, those thirty egrets wading. 

Ten great egrets and one snowy. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Pennsylvania Leatherwing Beetle

The Pennsylvania leatherwing, Chauliognathus pensylvanicus
If you walk through a field, garden, or park in the eastern United States during August or September, you will probably see a Pennsylvania leatherwing beetle.

They resemble their relatives, the fireflies, but they don't light up. Adults are about half an inch long and are yellowish orange. They have a horizontal black dash on the "shoulders" or pronotum -- the section between the head and the wings. The lower third of the wing is covered by a dark oval mark.

Usually a beetle's outer wings are hard, like those of a ladybug, to protect the inner flight wings. Leatherwings get their common name from their unusual soft and flexible outerwings.

Click on the photos to enlarge them. 
I always see Pennsylvania leatherwings walking on flowers in groups. While they are looking for snacks of pollen and insects, they often copulate among the blossom.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Happy Birthday Post!

It's a bullfrog. Click to enlarge.  
Not writing today because it is my birthday. I'm going to take a walk instead and look for butterflies.   <[:-)

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Butterfly Eggs!

This afternoon, I saw a big black butterfly in a patch of fennel. It was fluttering more erratically than usual, flitting from plant to plant. It held still long enough for me to take the photo below, and to see the pattern on the underside of its wings. The top wing has two rows of yellow-orange spots (a little blurred by flapping). The bottom wing has two rows of orange spots separated by patches of powdery blue. It was a black swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes. Its behavior -- flitting from leaf to leaf, landing for a moment and bending its abdomen under -- told me that it was a female, and that she was laying eggs!
I stood still. She came close, landed, bent her abdomen to a leaf, and then flew away. When I looked very closely at the leaf, I saw this:
A black swallowtail butterfly egg! It's about the size of the tip of a ball-point pen. Those are my giant fingertips on the left. 

A month ago, I saw this caterpillar in the same fennel patch. It was in the final stage of growth for a black swallowtail caterpillar, and about to become a pupa.  Pupation takes them about two weeks. Adults emerge and live for a few weeks. It's possible that this caterpillar became the butterfly that I saw laying eggs today. 

Black swallowtails have time to complete two generations in northern locations like New York. Today's egg is likely to hatch and reach the pupal stage, enter diapause, spend the winter as a pupa, and emerge as a butterfly next spring.

That reminds me that summer is almost over. And that reminds me of these lines by Li Po.

The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.