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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.