Sunday, August 30, 2015


"The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself." Henry Miller
Click on the photos to enlarge. 
There is a well camouflaged praying mantis nymph inside that circle. They rely on camouflage to hunt, sitting unseen until their insect prey come within striking range -- and then seizing them. It's pretty darned good camouflage. I wonder how many of these we pass without seeing them.  

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Laughing Gull Season is Almost Over

I keep noticing laughing gulls, Leucophaeus atricilla, around New York and thinking about how they will soon be gone for the year. Laughing gulls that breed in the northeast fly south for winter to the southern Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and to Central and South America.  I bet they are beginning to feel the pull. 

We are lucky to have laughing gulls at all; northeastern populations were nearly eliminated in the 19th century by plume hunters.           Click on the photos to enlarge. 
Breeding adult laughing gulls are easy to identify by their black hoods and bright red bills. And they sound like they are laughing when they call from beach or sky in loud descending notes, haa-haa-haa-haa; it's a sound that defines summer on the east coast. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Dog Day Cicadas

This empty cicada skin caught my eye. Click on the photos to enlarge. 
A few feet away on the same fence, I found this fresh looking  cicada.  It probably shed that skin a short time ago. It is one of the group of cicadas called dog day or annual cicadas that appear from June to late summer. This one is Neotibicen tibicen, called the morning cicada because the males sing early in the day. 
It is about 2 inches long. Notice the three ocelli or eyespots on its forehead, between the 2 large compound eyes. The famous periodical cicadas, the ones that emerge in 13 or 17 year cycles,  are smaller and have red eyes and emerge earlier in the year.
Here is a periodical cicada from the 2013 emergence, for comparison. Click here to read my eye-witness account of that event. 
Some annual cicadas appear  every year. But the life cycles of individuals take from 2 to 5 years, beginning as eggs laid in slits on tree branches. A nymph hatches, falls to the ground, and burrows down. It lives underground, sucking juices from plant roots, and grows. Eventually it reaches its last nymphal stage and claws its way upward to make an exit tunnel. It climbs onto something and sheds its skin, and emerges as an adult.

The males settle down and sings to attract females to mate. Different species of cicadas sing different songs and at different times of day or night. They sing with an organ called a timbal which is made of ribbed membranes that change shape with a click when pulled on by muscles. The clicks are magnified by various hollow chambers in the insect.

The dog days of summer were named by the ancients for the appearance of the dog star in the sky near dawn in July and August. We are in the dog days now; it's hot and humid, and the nights are loud with the songs of dog day cicadas.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

A walk in New Jersey

I took a nice long walk in New Jersey today. I was about an hour's drive from New York City in Hopewell. It looked like this... 
I saw this huge caterpillar, fat, and about 4 inches long. It's a Pandorus Sphinx moth caterpillar, Eumorpha pandorus.  It's one of the caterpillars commonly called a hornworm, because in its younger stages it sports a horn on its rear end (which is on the left in this photo).  Click to enlarge. 
The spot where the horn grows becomes a button on later-stage caterpillars like this one. It's that eye-like black spot-in-a-circle.  One of its foods is Virginia creeper; there was lots of it around. 
And lots of Queen Anne's lace. 
And lots of butterflies. The one on the left in this picture, is a female clouded sulphur. On the right, in flight and blurry, is an orange sulphur male. These two species sometimes hybridize so they may have been up to something. 
And this young fellow peeked out from the trees. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

A Four-toothed Mason Wasp

The solitary wasp, Monobia quadridens, commonly called the four-toothed mason wasp, it's black and white and about an inch long. Click to enlarge. 
This lovely wasp can be found drinking nectar at flowers throughout the eastern United States right now. It is a good wasp to have around the garden because the females round up leaf-rolling caterpillars -- the kinds that eat your plants -- to provision their nests. When it is time to reproduce, the female wasp builds a small nest, often in a wood bore made previously be a carpenter bee. She paralyzes caterpillars with a sting and flies them to the nest, stuffs one or a few into the deep end of the hole, and lays an egg there. Then she seals up that cell with mud and repeats the process, but famously leaves empty cells between occupied ones, possibly to fool invaders into thinking the nest is empty. The eggs hatch into wasp larvae that feed on the caterpillars.

August is a great month to look for interesting wasps and bees. All you need is a sunny day, flowers, patience, and luck. If you take a camera you might capture a great moment.