Sunday, October 28, 2012

Mating Damselflies

About a month ago, I walked the 8-mile path around Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Oceanville, New Jersey (near Atlantic City). The walk takes several hours for those of us who constantly stop to take photographs and to identify birds and butterflies. There were many many pairs of damselflies mating in the marsh grass that day.

It is not immediately obvious (to us) what is going on during damselfly and dragonfly sex. Here are the basics: An amorous male begins by producing sperm from genitalia at the tip of his abdomen (tail). He transfers the sperm package to receptacles under his belly. Then he goes off to find a female.

When he locates a likely mate, he grabs her by the head with hooks on the end of his abdomen; his claspers fit precisely to females of his species. The claspers-to-head position is called a mating chain. Sometimes they  fly while connected like this.

They eventually perch. The female curls to pick up the male's sperm with the tip of her abdomen, getting into a position called a mating wheel (some call it a heart). Click here to see a halloween pennant dragonfly mating wheel in a previous blog post.

And from the obscure trivia department. The damselfly has a very nice name in Dutch -- it's called a waterjuffer.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Common Copper Butterfly

The common copper butterfly, Lycaena phlaeas. Click to enlarge. 
This little butterfly would be easy to miss if not for the flashes of bright orange as it flits about in its active flight. The butterfly is only about an inch across. It usually flies within a few feet of the ground, often landing and spreading its wings; that's the time to sneak up and take a close look.

Its forewings are orange with black spots and a gray border; underneath they are similar but lighter colored. The hind wings are gray above with orange patches at the rear; underneath they are lighter gray with black spots and a zigzagged orange line at the edge. As is typical for members of the butterfly family Lycaenidae, the common copper has black-and-white ringed antennae and its eyes are outlined with white.

Striped antennae and white-ringed eyes! 
The common copper is also called the American copper and the small copper. It is found throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and in some parts of North Africa, visiting habitats from woodland clearings to city lots. But only when it's warm and the plants are green. This is about the end of the season for common copper butterflies in New England. Or, as Mother Goose would say:

Butterfly, Butterfly,
Whence do you come?
I know not, I ask not, 
Nor ever had a home. 
Butterfly, butterfly, 
Where do you go?
Where the sun shines, 
And where the buds grow. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Jamaica Bay

Not the image that comes to mind when you picture New York City, is it?  This is Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. The refuge office is on Cross Bay Boulevard in the New York City borough of Queens. Click on the photo to enlarge. 
You can see the distant Manhattan skyline from the gravel paths of the refuge. The tallest building is the New World Trade Center. 
You can get there on the NYC subway -- another surprise! From my Brooklyn neighborhood it takes about 40 minutes to get to Broad Channel station, about a mile from the refuge. The last half of the ride is above ground. Take the Mott Avenue-Far Rockaway bound A train. Click here to check the schedule with the MTA's trip planner.  Step out of the station and walk straight to Cross Bay Boulevard. Turn right. Continue to the refuge entrance on the left side of the road. 
Then relax and walk around the West Pond. The trail takes you for a 1.6 mile stroll through woodland and marsh. 

Yesterday I saw cormorants, great egrets, ruddy ducks, mallards, song sparrows, kinglets, mute swans, Canada geese, and large flocks of brant geese. But the real stars were the yellow-rumped warblers. 
Thousands of yellow-rumped warblers were darting across the paths and flitting from branch to branch. They migrate down the east coast in large numbers every autumn. Some of them will continue south and some will spend the winter in New York, especially in coastal areas like the refuge where wax-myrtle plants provide food for them. 
The yellow-rumped warbler, Setophaga coronata, is also called the myrtle warbler.  The picture above explains its common nickname butter butt. 
The trail has nicely placed benches for a mid-hike picnic lunch. 
The autumn foliage is perfect now, too. :-) 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Fiddler Crabs

Fiddler crabs in the salt marsh. Click to enlarge.
Summer has ended. Nights are cooling. Days are shorter. The kids have gone back to school. And the fiddler crabs will soon disappear.

The fiddler crabs in the photographs live in the muddy salt marsh at Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge on the New Jersey shore near Atlantic City. At low tide they forage for bits of decayed plant material. When the tide comes in, they retreat into underground burrows, plugging the entrances with mud. They stay holed up there until the tide goes out. If you watch the mud flats as the water withdraws you will see holes appear and crabs emerge. From spring until autumn, at least. But when the weather gets too cold for them, fiddler crabs retreat into their burrows, plug them up, and stay out of sight until spring. The ones at Forsythe will do that soon -- the high temperature in Atlantic City today was only 57 degrees.

Mud fiddlers can be found along the Atlantic coast from Florida to Massachusetts. Their shells are square with rounded edges and about two inches wide. Crabs with one giant claw are males. The large claw can be on either side.  Rival males fight each other with them. Big claws also attract females; amorous male fiddlers stand next to their burrows and wave the claw provocatively. When a female approaches, the male taps his claw on the ground, or may slip into the burrow entrance and bang his claw. That can be irresistible to a female fiddler crab. If she is receptive, she will go into the burrow and they will mate.

They remind me of a hippie song from the 1960's by Donovan Leitch -- The Tinker and the Crab. In part:

...Down where young gulls dance
Driftwood lying, drying for the fire
Yellow beak and sleek
Now the gulls are crying, flying higher
Out from the sea came a little green crab
Taking the sun
The morning being very drab
Old rusted cans
Pebbles 'bedded in the sand
Stand and stare