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Sunday, October 15, 2017

Another Bubbling Fly

I saw this fly today while walking in a park in Moorestown, New Jersey. Click to enlarge and you will see that it is blowing a bubble. As I watched, it blew the bubble about twice as large as pictured above and then sucked it in and then blew it up again and sucked it in three times! Then it flew away. It's the third insect I've found bubbling.
 I wrote blogs previously about a fly and then a bee I saw bubbling. There are theories about why they do this but no agreement. Based on the number of times I've seen it in just a few years I'm beginning to think it must be common -- or else I'm just freakishly lucky.  You can go to my bubbling insect blogs by clicking on this sentence.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Happy Columbus Day!

A holiday is a good time for a day trip to the country. Seems like Autumn is coming slowly and subtly this year, yet cicadas are calling loudly and there's a constant hum of crickets in the woods. Reminds me of this from E. B. White in Charlotte's Web: 

"The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last for ever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year – the days when summer is changing into autumn – the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change."

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Carnivorous Plant Edition

I've been in the New Jersey pine barrens a few times recently, at Whitesbog in Browns Mills and at Brendan T. Byrne State Forest. While I was there I saw three kinds of delightful carnivorous plants: pitcher plants, sundews, and floating bladderworts. The picture above is of a group of pitcher plants. Click to enlarge.
The soil in the pine barrens is poor in nutrients. Up to the challenge, these plants supplement their diets, especially with nitrogen, by trapping insects. Those little pitchers contain water and digestive enzymes. When an insect enters a pitcher it is guided down and in by downward facing hairs on the interior surface which prevent its escape. It eventually falls in and its soft parts are dissolved and consumed.
This lovely but dangerous pitcher beckons with insect-attracting red lips. Pitcher plants and sundews grow in acidic conditions near water with lots of sun. You can find them by slowly walking along the shore of a pine barrens pond.
This sundew plant has sticky drops of liquid on its leaves that can trap an unwary insect and hold it while the leaf slowly curls around and then digests. If you search you can sometimes find empty empty insect victims still stuck to sundew leaves.
This is a floating bladderwort. The spoke-like arrangement of leaves at the water surface is inflated and floats the plant.
Underwater leaves have bladders that can trap tiny aquatic creatures using a trapdoor system activated by trigger hairs that respond to the touch of prey. Amazing, no? You will find these floating in still water.
Cranberries grow in the New Jersey pine barrens, and blueberries too; both are cultivated and can be found growing wild. It is worth a trip for the plants alone and the ecology is fascinating. In fact, a pine barrens special edition is coming soon.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Autumn has begun!

A mockingbird with persimmons. Click to enlarge.
I'd like to think that if Walt Whitman were here right now, he'd say: 

"Give me the splendid silent sun with all his beams full-dazzling, 
 Give me juicy autumnal fruit ripe and red from the orchard."

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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Insects at Work

This week I noticed a lot of insects working. The honeybee above, for instance, is checking for pollen or nectar in a touch-me-not blossom. Click on the photos to enlarge.I also saw a few insects doing less common jobs.
Like this sand wasp digging at the door of its nest. That blur behind the rear legs is sand flying into the air. Adults typically visit the occupied nest to drop off captured prey like flies for developing wasp larvae to eat.
I also saw this yellow jacket scraping fibers off this wooden post. Note how shaggy the wood looks? It seems like such a popular spot for this activity that the wasps have worn it ragged. This wasp flew away when I approached but it or another just like it returned for more. They use wood fibers for nest building and repair. So many interesting insect jobs being performed all around us!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Summer Azure

I was walking on the sandy shore of the Delaware River in South Jersey right across from Philadelphia when I noticed this little butterfly sitting on a shell. The butterfly is the summer azure, Celastrina neglecta. If you click to enlarge you can see its proboscis extended and lying on the shell so I think it is obtaining moisture and perhaps minerals. Butterflies in its family Lycaenidae are well known for a behavior called puddling; gathering in muddy places to drink and obtain minerals from the soil. 
I usually see summer azures on flowers like this, but I guess they sometimes just get an appetite for seafood.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Happy Labor Day!

Have a wonderful holiday. Maybe make like this Zebra at the Cape May County Zoo and put your hooves in the air like you just don't care? Click to enlarge. 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Monarch Caterpillar

I cannot let the summer end without sharing at least one lovely monarch caterpillar, Danaus plexippus. Monarch caterpillars are not very hard to find; just slowly examine a few milkweed plants and you'll eventually find them. What's tricky is getting its entire long caterpillar body parallel to the face of a camera lens so all of it is in focus.                      Click to enlarge.

And here is a thought provoking quote from Chirag Tuisiani:

"I wonder if the caterpillar at the threshold of death ever knew that she would get metamorphosed into a butterfly that she could fly."

Sunday, August 20, 2017

More Milkweed Tussock Moth Caterpillars

I wrote about milkweed tussock moth caterpillars last week -- Euchaetes egle, remember? And I keep seeing them. Look at all these guys! This must be the tastiest leaf on the milkweed plant. Click to enlarge. As I was wondering what it is like down there in their world I recalled the words below...  
"She sat down in a weed patch, her elbows on her knees,
and kept her eyes on the small mysterious world of the ground.  
In the shade and sun of grass blade forests,
small living things had their metropolis."
                                                                                           Nancy Price

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Milkweed Tussock Moth Caterpillar

I was looking at milkweed tussock moth caterpillars, Euchaetes egle, last week as they were eating milkweed leaves. This is the other caterpillar commonly found on milkweeds, in addition to the monarch butterfly caterpillar. Click to enlarge.
There were a lot of them, some in groups, eating side by side and they had eaten most of the foliage from quite a few plants in the patch. As I watched, I reached out to turn over a leaf to get a better look at whatever was under there -- part of a caterpillar was sticking out. I got a big surprise when three or four of them jumped into the air simultaneously; they seemed to spread out all their tufts so they looked like big spiders as they fell into the grass (or so my mind filled in). Then they scrambled into the brush very quickly for caterpillars. I've handled more insects than many people and don't think of myself as squeamish but these guys really made me jump. Great evasive maneuver caterpillars! If I had been trying to catch you, you foiled me and lived to eat milkweed another day!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Thread-waisted Wasp

Here's a wasp that seems to give new meaning to the term thread-waisted. I saw this fine example of Eremnophila aureonatata while it was sipping nectar from a summersweet blossom (Clethra ainifolia) in a park in southern New Jersey. It's a solitary wasp, and a hunter at times. When it is time to reproduce, females of this species prepare a burrow for their eggs and then capture and sting a caterpillar, paralyzing it. You can sometimes see one dragging a fat caterpillar across the ground. The unfortunate caterpillar gets stuffed into the nest for the larvae to feed upon as they grow. Unlucky caterpillar. Beautiful wasp.
Click to enlarge.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Rabbit News

This week's post is an update from the suburbs of South Jersey near Philadelphia. There are lots of rabbits here, hopping on lawns and eating grass. Click to enlarge.
Two days ago I noticed a bare spot on a lawn, bare soil with a shallow hole at one end, and I wondered what it was. The next day I saw a rabbit in that spot with its head in the hole. As I watched, the rabbit hopped around the lawn and gathered mouthful after mouthful of dry grass, which it carried to the spot and arranged to its liking. A nest!
It's a nest that is very hard to see, even if you know it's there. In this photo it is in the lower patch of sunlight.
Note the nicely constructed grass arch over the doorway. Yesterday there was just grass inside. I cautiously inserted a finger today and felt a soft lining of fur. I've read that female rabbits build their nests a few days to a few hours before giving birth and that adding the fur lining is the last step. Mother rabbits don't sit on their nests; they visit to nurse the babies in the morning and evening. So I can peek during the day without disturbing. Watch this spot. Hopefully there will be baby bunny photos in a few weeks.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Barn Swallows

The barn swallow is one of those simultaneously common yet elusive birds that I see all the time but rarely photograph because they never seem to sit still. They fly by me at high speed doing aerial acrobatics as they catch insects in the air; I see them swooping along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade all through the summer. But yesterday I was lucky enough to stumble upon a nest. The bird above is a youngster that has recently left is nest (nearby) to sit under an eave. Click to enlarge.

It is waiting for a parent to show up with food. Opening its gape to beg reveals a bright yellow target for the parent.
In a flash of wings, an adult arrived and delivered something.
At least one sibling was still in the nearby nest. Barn swallows make their nests out of dabs of mud and line the interior with grass and feathers.
The bird in the nest got a food delivery, too.
Here's an adult trying to take a rest; notice its adult beak.
But eave bird got fidgety and started begging.
And made it clear it was still hungry.
And shortly got another tasty delivery.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Bobwhite!

I usually hear bobwhites but don't see them, or catch a glimpse of a boldly patterned head as the shy bird disappears in grass. The call is an unmistakable loud whistled "bob-white!" that rises in pitch on the second syllable. But during a recent visit to Cape May Point State Park I saw this unusually bold male above and equally unselfconscious female below.      Click to enlarge.
Both birds were uncharacteristically nonchalant about nearby humans and did not seem to mind me photographing them. One of the park employees told me that the bobwhites had been around for a few days, sitting on the hawkwatch platform railings and practically posing for selfies with delighted park visitors.
The northern bobwhite, also called the Virginia quail or bobwhite quail, Colinus virginianus, has experienced steep population decline across its range and is considered to be Near Threatened. For the past three years, the New Jersey Audubon Society has released 80 northern bobwhites each year in southern New Jersey as part of a reintroduction program that also includes habitat improvement.  I don't know if the pair at Cape May Point have anything to do with that program, but they are a lovely addition to an already great park. I hope they thrive there and become a permanent attraction.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Assassin!

I was poking around in the leaves at Cape May Point State Park last week and I found this saucy wheel bug nymph, Arilus cristatus. Click to enlarge.
It's an immature form of the fine adult wheel bug pictured above. See that long sharp beak at its mouth? Wheel bugs are predators of other insects. They feed by piercing prey with their beaks, injecting salivary fluids that dissolve the victim's insides, and then sucking them up. Wheel bugs belong to an insect family known commonly as the assassin bugs. Nothing makes my day like finding a wheel bug.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Happy Fourth of July!




No blog this week -- just a couple of red, white, and blue local birds: northern cardinal, great egret, and blue jay. Have a great holiday! Click to enlarge. 


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Harvestman

I passed this lovely long legged creature while I was walking in Boundary Creek Park in Moorestown, New Jersey. Click on the photo to enlarge it. Years ago I would have thought it was a tremendously big spider; it was about 4 or 5 inches from leg tip to leg tip. But it's not a spider. It is a member of the large arachnid order Opiliones, usually called by the common names of harvestman or harvester, daddy-longlegs or granddaddy-longlegs. The opilionids don't spin silk and don't make webs. They don't make venom. Their bodies are not divided into 2 segments with a "waist" like spiders. Many but not all of the thousands of described species of harvestmen have these extremely long slender legs. I always find them like this, sitting motionless upon leaves, possibly waiting for unsuspecting prey like an aphid, mite, caterpillar, or whatnot to stroll past, but maybe just taking in the summer day.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Willet

Shorebird identification can be challenging for new bird watchers. But one of the shorebirds, the long-legged pigeon-sized willet, Tringa semipalmata, helps out by obligingly shouting its name "Pill Will Willet! Pill Will Willet!" and then spreading its wings to reveal white markings that differentiate it from all others. I cannot tell you how many times I've asked "Is that a willet?" to have the question answered by the bird itself with a call and a wing flash. Click to enlarge.
The willet is my pick for a father's day bird because, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, although both willet parents share the task of incubating eggs, only male willets spend their nights on the nest. Happy Father's Day to everybody!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Black Skimmers

Black skimmer couples, Rynchops niger, are nesting now on New Jersey beaches. Sandy beaches with light vegetation like the one pictured are among their favorite places to nest. The nest is just a scrape in the sand. Humans also like beaches like this and human disturbance combined with natural predation, habitat degradation, and flooding has led to these unique birds being endangered in New Jersey. I took the picture from farther away than it looks with a telephoto lens and tried not to seem aggressive. They ignored me so I think I was successful. Click to enlarge.
Adult black skimmers have a wingspan up to about 50 inches. The huge sleek bird feeds by flying  low over water with its beak open, the lower mandible cutting through the surface of the water and closing when it encounters a fish. (Click here to see it on YouTube.) But the thing I like most about them is the way they rest on the beach. Click on the photo above to enlarge; the four birds in the center are lying prone on the sand like a row of downed bowling pins. There is nothing average about a black skimmer.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Peacock Fly!

I was walking in Long Bridge Park in Burlington County, New Jersey, the other day. There are lots of wooden walkways over marshy spots on the trails. Whenever I walk on nature trail boardwalks like that I scan the handrails because they are good places to find insects basking in the sun and caterpillars that have fallen from trees. I was not disappointed. Stopping to investigate a tiny fly I saw the critter pictured above -- a peacock fly with its wings raised over its back, from which it gets its common name. Click to enlarge.
The peacock fly is more formally Callopistromyia annulipes of the picture-winged fly family Ulidiidae. They are found across North America. Both genders commonly strut with their wings up like this and several other individuals were near this one. Being only about the size of fruit flies they are easy to overlook and I had never seen one before.
This all reminds me of the last spectacular thing I found on the handrail of a nature trail: the rarely seen holy grail of caterpillars, a spun glass caterpillar, Isochaetes beutenmueller. It was on a wooden railing near the River Styx in Mammoth Cave Park in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. Sometimes it pays to keep your eyes down.