Sunday, December 28, 2014

Happy New Year!

My creature of the year award for 2014 goes to --- 

The spun glass caterpillar, Isochaetes beutenmuelleri, of Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky. I photographed the fabulous pale green larva, covered with transparent glassy spikes, in September. The larva will grow up to become a relatively drab moth. Spun glass caterpillars are rare sightings and give caterpillar hunters something to brag about. (Smirking.)

I saw the caterpillar on the wooden walkway that leads to the River Styx, pictured here -- it's one of many cool local attractions at Mammoth Cave Park. Mammoth Cave is also the least crowded National Park I have ever visited.

The caterpillar looked like this when I first saw it. I'll bet it had fallen from a tree above. I would never have  noticed it if it had landed anywhere but on the contrasting wooden railing of the walkway. The caterpillar is tiny, only about 1/4 of an inch long. Congratulations spun glass caterpillar -- you are my 2014 creature of the Year! Yay!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Remembering Summer Bees

I know everyone is busy with holiday preparation, so just a few words about some bees I saw in June. I've seen this bee before -- it's Bombus fervidus, commonly called the golden northern bumble bee -- but it has always managed to fly away before I could take a photograph. I snuck up on this one while its head was deep inside a wild bergamot blossom. See all the furry yellow stripes on its abdomen? Click to enlarge. 
The bumblebees I usually see are these common eastern bumblebees, Bombus impatiens.  Note the black abdomens and short yellow jackets. I saw all the bees in this blog post in Brooklyn Heights. 
I also sometimes see brown-belted bumblebees, Bombus griseocollis, like this one. Note the "hip-length" furry jacket.  
The golden northern bumblebee again -- I'd call that a "knee-length" yellow fur coat if bees had their knees where ours are. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Bird News!

There is big news in the bird world this week. For the last four years, hundreds of scientists in an international group called the Avian Phylogenomics Consortium have been sequencing bird genomes. They sequenced the DNA of 45 extant birds and a few crocodilians, and combined that with three previously sequenced bird genomes and then analyzed that huge mass of data. The results just released show the best reconstruction of the evolutionary relationships among the orders of birds that we have so far. And there is lots to marvel at: falcons are more closely related to parrots than to eagles and vultures, and flamingos are a sister group to grebes. To look at the tree of relationships, click here.

The results of the study were published in a special issue of Science Magazine; eight research articles from the study can be accessed by clicking here. Another 20 papers were published elsewhere; read them on the Avian Phylogenomics Project website by clicking here. 

Some of the high points revealed by the study are that bird genomes are near a third of the size of mammal genomes, and lack gene clusters present in many other vertebrates. There are analogies between vocal learning genes in birds and humans. Coolest, and possibly explaining the house sparrows' attitude issues, the ancestor of all land birds, including giant monster sized "terror" birds now extinct, was probably a big predatory bird. An even older ancestor lost the genetic code for growing teeth. This study produced data that will be mined for years to come.

Click on the photos to enlarge. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Spring Birds in Winter

Remember the polar vortex winter we had last year? This robin came to my window every cold morning of it with his feathers so puffed up he looked downright chubby. I fed him raisins for breakfast straight through until spring. He's back! He (or someone who looks just like him) started looking in my windows a few weeks ago and is back in the habit of breakfasting on raisins at my place. 
Robins eat worms and insects and fresh fruits and berries when they can get them. We typically see robins stalking worms in short grass all through summer. When winter comes and the insects and worms hole up, robins change to a diet primarily of dried fruit. Some robins migrate to warmer places, but some just disappear from lawns and form winter flocks that travel to different kinds of foraging areas. 

White-throated sparrows are behaving differently in deference to winter, too. They have started to show up on my porch where I haven't seen them since last winter. I see them in the neighborhood all year, but they only visit the porch in winter (even though they would likely find a snack of seeds in any season). Click to enlarge.
New York City's northern mockingbirds tend to stay put during the winter, but it might seem like they have gone south. We are used to their flashy wing-waving and tireless singing; in winter they become relatively quiet. They visit my porch for raisins. 
I usually hear my favorites, the blue jays, before I see them. I give them peanuts in the shell. They make repeated trips until they have gathered them all. But they have to share with...
Northern cardinals that always seem happy to pose in the snow in return for peanuts... 
and Brooklyn squirrels! 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thanksgiving 2014

As the Thanksgiving festivities draw to a close, consider the wild turkeys  of New Jersey, a few of which are pictured above. Wild turkeys had been extirpated in New Jersey by the mid-1800s. In the 1970s a few birds were reintroduced. That population caught on, and wildlife managers captured and released them more broadly around the state. Now, about 40 years later, turkeys are a common sight all over New Jersey. Too common a sight, some say; there are thought to be about 23,000 of them out there! Click to enlarge. 
This looks like a lovely autumn lake in the country, doesn't it? Nope. It is in Prospect Park in Brooklyn -- about as urban as a place can be. The designers did a great job of creating an illusion of remoteness, didn't they? There's no population of wild turkeys here yet, but you can see one big old male wild turkey in the Prospect Park Zoo. 
Wishing you all another year filled with things to be thankful for! 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Pretty Pigeons

I walked around my Brooklyn neighborhood today, scouting for handsome pigeons. I am partial to the piebald ones that have patches of iridescence. Although pigeons rarely seem to stay still for long (at least when I am trying to photograph them), some paused long enough for these portraits. Click to enlarge. 

Two-toned bill! 
And a poem -- 
Pigeons by Richard Kell

They paddle with staccato feet
In powder-pools of sunlight,
Small blue busybodies
Strutting like fat gentlemen
With hands clasped
Under their swallowtail coats;
And, as they stump about,
Their heads like tiny hammers
Tap at imaginary nails
In non-existent walls.
Elusive ghosts of sunshine
Slither down the green gloss
Of their necks in an instant, and are gone.

Summer hangs drugged from sky to earth
In limpid fathoms of silence:
Only warm dark dimples of sound
Slide like slow bubbles
From the contented throats.

Raise a casual hand -
With one quick gust
They fountain into air. 

 A puffed up pigeon on my porch celebrated the relatively warm day... 

With a nap. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

200,000 Pageviews!

 The Urban Wildlife Guide just passed 200,000 pageviews. I am taking the day off to bask in the glow...

p.s. Stay tuned for the upcoming gallery of Brooklyn's most beautiful pigeons.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Gull and Crab

Can you find the crab in this picture? It's like a hidden object puzzle to me. Click to enlarge. 
No problem for the herring gull, though. The bird, Larus argentatus, is in adult winter plumage. 
Crab dinner. 
This poem comes to mind -- A Green Crab's Shell, by Mark Doty, 1953

Not, exactly, green: 
closer to bronze
preserved in kind brine,

something retrieved 
from a Greco-Roman wreck,
patinated and oddly

muscular. We cannot 
know what his fantastic 
legs were like -- 

though evidence
suggests eight
complexly folded

scuttling works 
of armament, crowned
by the foreclaws'

gesture of menace
and power. A gull's
gobbled the center,

leaving this chamber
--size of a demitasse--
open to reveal

a shocking, Giotto blue. 
Though it smells
of seaweed and ruin, 

this little traveling case 
comes with such lavish lining! 
Imagine breathing

surrounded by 
the brilliant rinse
of summer's firmament. 

What color is 
the underside of skin?
Not so bad, to die, 

if we could be opened 
into this -- 
if the smallest chambers

of ourselves,
revealed some sky. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Friendly English Herons

Here are a few more things I saw while birdwatching in Kensington Gardens in London this past summer.
The horses on the carousel had names. One was called Perrin. 
Some of the pigeons were common wood pigeons, Columba palumbus -- big pigeons with bold white neck patches. 
The park's great blue herons, Ardea herodias, were uncharacteristically friendly. At home, I usually see great blue herons hunting alone in marshes, often, like this one, in litter-strewn marshes. Click to enlarge. 
But in Kensington Gardens there were several great blue herons among the hordes of swans, geese, and ducks soliciting handouts of food from passing humans. I had never seen a great blue heron do that before (although I have seen a flock of white ibis go from door to door for snacks in suburban backyards in Florida). 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Rose Weevil

See the holes in the rose petals? That little brown beetle on the bud in the upper right is responsible. It's an adult rose weevil, about 1/4 of an inch long.  Click to enlarge. 
Rose weevils have long beaks with chewing mouthparts at the end. They poke them into rosebuds and munch away, making holes. When the buds unfold, the damaged layers unfurl. Rose weevils lay eggs in some of the holes they drill in buds. The eggs hatch into wormlike larvae that feed inside the bud and can weaken its attachment to the stem, so many infested buds fall to the ground. The larvae come out of the buds, burrow into the ground, and spend the winter there. They eventually pupate and emerge the following year, in time to eat more roses.
A close-up of a rose weevil walking on a rosebud with a big hole in it. Hmm...wonder how that happened?

It reminds me of this poem by William Blake. 

The Sick Rose

O Rose thou art sick. 
The invisible worm, 
That flies in the night
In the howling storms:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Busy Milkweed

There is a lot of activity on milkweed plants this time of year. I wrote a blog about some of the members of the milkweed community in October of 2011. You can see that blog by clicking here. 
Today I saw this late instar monarch caterpillar. Its head is on the right. It was eating voraciously, bulking up for its pupal stage, which will come soon. It will pupate for about two weeks and then emerge as a butterfly to begin its long migration south. Click to enlarge.
The plants were covered with oleander aphids like this one. 
A few of the aphids had wings. There is one in the upper right of this photo; winged individuals can disperse to nearby stems and pods to establish new populations. Click to enlarge the photo and you will see that there is a caterpillar-like organism among the aphids. It is the larva of a syrphid fly; it will  grow up to become a hover fly (also called flower fly). In its larval stage it eats aphids. No shortage of those around here. 

A closer look at the fly larva. It is easy to mistake for a caterpillar, or even a plant part. Stealthy! 
As I was clicking pictures of this cluster of milkweed bug nymphs, I got a surprising message from them -- they knew they were being watched and they did not like it. See the picture below. They all ran around to the other side. 
Stop looking at us! 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Angel Moth Caterpillar

The angel moth caterpillar. Click to enlarge.
I had uncommonly good luck with caterpillars during my recent trip to Kentucky. This is the angel moth caterpillar, Olceclostera angelica, a  member of the Bombycidae family of silkworm moths. Angel moth caterpillars usually feed on lilac or ash. This one was on a wooden fence post, probably after falling from a host plant. I saw it near the historic entrance to Mammoth Cave in Mammoth Cave National Park. It is an uncommon caterpillar, not often seen, and, like the spun glass caterpillar I saw nearby and wrote about recently (click here to see the story) -- I had never seen one before.

The longhaired angel moth caterpillar grows up to be a handsome furry-legged moth with a glittery abdomen and silver-grey scallop-edged wings that made the scientist who named it think of angels. Click here to see a photo of the moth.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

It's Locust Borer Beetle Time!

The locust borer beetle, Megacyllene robiniae. Click to enlarge.
Goldenrod is one of my favorite things about autumn. I can spend hours inspecting the bright yellow flowers, finding and photographing the insects it attracts -- like this locust borer beetle. It is a "long-horned" beetle in the family cerambycidae. Check out its long antennae.

You may be wondering why it is not called the goldenrod beetle...

Although we usually notice them on goldenrod in autumn, they spend most of their life cycle on locust trees. Adults lay eggs on locusts. The eggs hatch into larvae that spend winter under the tree's bark. When the weather warms, the larvae burrow deeper into the tree and pupate there. They emerge as adults in late summer and early autumn. Egg, larva, and pupa live on locusts; adults are found eating goldenrod pollen, but they hang out on locust trees, too, and eventually lay their eggs there. Calling them locusts borers makes sense after all.

There are more pictures in my previous blog about locust borer beetles. Click on this sentence to go there. I get excited about seeing them every year, so the chances are good I will be writing about them next October, too. :-)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Chinese Mantis

The Chinese mantis, Tenedera sinensis. Click to enlarge. 
The Chinese mantis is remarkably easy to overlook for an insect that is five inches long. This one was blending in among leaves and flowers along a fence on Pier 1 in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

The mantis is a predator that sits quietly waiting until its (mainly) insect prey is within striking distance; prey can be almost any kind of fly, bee, spider, moth, or similar thing. It quickly grabs the victim with its spiked forelegs, impaling and holding it, and then eats with a mouth that cuts and tears.

The Chinese mantis is native to Asia. It was accidentally introduced to the United States in the late 1800s and spread. Gardeners now deliberately release them for biological control of plant pests and Chinese mantises are kept as pets. They consequently can be found in the wild throughout the the country.

This is one of a few kind of mantises that you might encounter. I wrote previously about a Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis carolina) that I also saw in Brooklyn Bridge Park -- in the same spot! You can see that blog and compare the two mantises by clicking on this sentence.

It seems that Brooklyn Bridge Park is a good place to find mantises. I'll bet it is because of the variety of tasty prey that results from the thoughtfully chosen plantings. Look for mantises near blooming flowers by the Pier 1 section of fence that borders the wide gravel road on the eastern side of the park.

The surface of the mantis' wing case looks deceptively like a dry leaf. 
If you don't know it's there it is easy to overlook. 
But when you get up close, you'll find it is watching you.