Fun with Fungi (and mosses and lichens)

Turkey tail fungus reduced w sig

After bemoaning the end of insect season in a recent post, I decided to stop whining and  get out there to find something to photograph in the woods. And I’m happy to say that I was amply rewarded for my determination.

I love trees for many reasons. In warmer months I take photos of their blossoms and fruits as well as the birds and insects who feed and breed in them. Then in the fall, of course, I take photos of their resplendent foliage. But there’s one thing I haven’t paid much attention to, and that’s the other organisms that grow on the trees. So that’s what I did on a recent walk in the woods at a favorite metropark in Toledo.

Yes, this is all about fungi and mosses and lichens–oh my! (Ever since I compared sandhill cranes to flying monkeys, I seem to have Wizard of Oz on the brain.)

Let’s start with the fungi, because they’re fun.

Turkey tail fungus is very common; in fact it might be the most common fungus on this continent.  Its scientific name is Trametes versicolor, a reference to the many colors it exhibits. It usually appears in a variety of greens, browns, and whites.  On this day I found one of the prettiest examples of this species that I’ve seen.  As you can see above, this one had a lovely combination of lighter colors and patterns.

It seems I most often find the semi-circular types of these attached to the tree like little shelves, but this decaying tree had some completely circular ones (shown above), as well as a few funnel-shaped specimens that I’d never noticed before.

Turkey tail in cone shape w sig

Another thing I’d never noticed before is that the concentric circles of color also vary in texture. I think you can see it in this close crop. It looks like the brown rings are smoothest, while the greens are rather fuzzy or rough.

Turkey tail fungus - close crop for texture

I should mention the possibility that this is actually false turkey tail, or Stereum ostrea. The key to distinguishing the two species are the presence or absence of pores on the underside. I confess that even with a magnifying glass I couldn’t see pores on the underside of this one, but I’m not sure if I just need higher magnification.  And to be honest, I don’t have to be sure of its name in order to admire its beauty, so I’m not too concerned with a positive identification. (I’ve put a couple references at the end of this post for those of you who want to read more.)

I also found these little mushrooms and spent some time crawling all around them to get the  most pleasing photographic angle. I haven’t even attempted to identify these but I really like this photo.

Little mushrooms on a log reduced w sig

Here’s a shot of my camera setup in the woods. I spent about 90 minutes in this area and only saw about 15 people on the nearby trail.

My camera on tripod pointing down at lichens and fungi on dead tree (2)

And although I was only about 15 yards off-trail, most of those people seemed to not even notice me. Although some other creatures were very aware of my presence. This was one of three deer who stood and stamped their feet when they saw me in their intended path.

Deer watching me take fungi photos
Lichens are fascinating organisms, and I can only write a little bit about them here. (And as always, remember that I’m not a scientist but am trying my best to give accurate information.) But basically, they’re combinations of fungi and algae (or cyanobacteria). When I learned that, I wondered how they were classified. It seems that after much debate, lichens have been placed in the same taxonomic kingdom as fungi.

Lichen showing fruiting bodies (2)

What I discovered as I looked closely at the lichens was those little cup-shaped discs scattered over the surface. Those are the fruiting bodies called apothecia, through which the fungal component of the lichen reproduces itself.  I think they’re really cool. Oh, and because I have to mention insects again, apparently only a few insects can feed on lichens because of their complex chemistry. Here’s a closer crop of this lichen:

Lichen showing fruiting bodies - closer crop

I really like this lichen because it looks like lettuce leaves around the edges.

Lichen with pretty leafy ruffly texture w sig

Red velvet mite and moss on tree barkOh, speaking of almost-insects, look who I found trying to hide among the moss on a tree. This is a red velvet mite, an arachnid. He really stood out in the brown-grayness of the fall woodlands. I highly recommend that you jump over to this page at The Oatmeal to see a very funny comic about the sex life of the red velvet mite. I laughed out loud.
And now to finish up, let’s admire some pretty moss.

Moss on a log w sig

Oooh. Aaahhh. Pretty, right? Notice the structures resembling hairs that protrude above this moss; those are the setae. On top of each seta is a capsule in which the spores develop.

Moss with setae highlighted w sig

If you’re like me, you won’t be able to resist running your hand over those soft “hairs” a few times. They tickle.

I took this photo when I found moss, lichen, and fungus growing alongside each other on the same rotting tree. If I’d had more time I probably could have had fun crawling around that single decaying tree for a couple more hours. So much to see in every crevice!

Lichen moss and fungus together w sig

Little mushroom with tiny spider on edge w sigOh, and when I was reviewing my photos at home after this excursion, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I’d captured a teeny tiny spider on the edge of a small mushroom. He must have been playing peek-a-boo with me, because he only appears in one of the three shots I took of this particular fungal life form.  I see you, little guy!

As promised, here are a few resources for further reading about some of today’s topics:

Turkey tail identification key: http://www.mushroomexpert.com/trametes_versicolor.html
https://baynature.org/2013/11/28/can-tell-true-turkey-tail-imposter/

Lichen reproduction: http://www.lichens.lastdragon.org/faq/lichensexualfruitingbodies.html

and http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/fungi/lichens/lichenlh.html

Posted in Fungi, Mosses, Lichens, Insects, Ohio | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

Making Hay While the Sun…Doesn’t Shine

Last weekend’s trip to Indiana’s Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area for crane-viewing didn’t turn out exactly as hoped for due to some extreme weather conditions. Of course I knew the weather forecast in advance, and even made a half-hearted attempt to back out of the trip, but Jim responded with an admonition about not being a sissy.  That was just the kick in the pants I needed, because one of my primary goals in life is to not be a sissy.

So once we got there we were determined to make the best of the situation, and persisted through rain and cold north winds to find the best photo subjects we could. Since the largest numbers of cranes are found near dawn and dusk, the lighting was also a challenge. And since I’m still learning to use my new camera, there were some times I couldn’t change settings quickly enough to get certain shots. But enough with the excuses. Despite all of that, I do have a few things to show you.

Crane viewing platform at Jasper-Pulaski

This is the viewing platform that overlooks the area where the sandhill cranes congregate each morning and evening. Unfortunately, this lovely photo isn’t representative of the rest of my results from the trip, which were all taken in less-than-optimal conditions.

I really like this 30-second video I shot in the pre-dawn light one morning. It shows lots of the birds practicing their courtship dancing moves. And although the lighting is poor, it still gives you a taste of what it’s like to see and hear large numbers of cranes at their daily social gathering.

And although I have many in-flight shots of these birds already, I couldn’t resist trying to get some more. In particular, Jim and I both love the moments when the birds are making the transition from flight to solid ground, dropping their gangly landing gear legs while still hanging in the air. We noticed that some birds would lower their landing gear while still fairly high in the sky, while others would wait until much closer to the ground. That difference could be something to do with age and experience, perhaps.

Sandhill cranes with legs down for landing w sig

Flying monkeys dropping from the sky (poorly focused but still awesome)

In my past writing about this I’ve described them as looking like giant marionettes falling from the sky, but this time I was struck by a new image: the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz.  You know the scene when she sends them all out to attack Dorothy and her friends in the woods, right?  This mental image was triggered not only by the visual spectacle, but also the cacophony that accompanied their descent from the cold November sky. I can’t stop smiling when I think of it that way now.

One of the few daylight photos I could salvage was this one. I took a series of rapid shots as one crane dropped down into this small gathering in a grassy field, and got many images of his wings in various positions. This one is my favorite because the wings are fully extended, giving an excellent impression of the enormous size of this bird.

Sandhill crane landing with wings spread fully

In-flight silhouette shots were the easiest to create in low-light conditions, and I really like these two.

Sandhill cranes in flight against dawn sky

Cranes flying into the golden light of the sunrise sky

Moon and ducks at dawn

Duck side of the Moon (my Pink Floyd tribute)

One morning I was tracking the flight of these ducks across the pre-dawn sky and was ready when they crossed in front of the moon. This is one of my favorite shots from the weekend.

When we weren’t at Jasper-Pulaski, we spent time driving around surrounding areas shooting trees and other nature scenes. The rain had provided us with lots of opportunities to use the moody fog in our compositions.

Fog and lone tree with reflection in water

Fog and two big oak trees

I’ve been enchanted with the photographic possibilities of trees for many years. I usually seek out isolated trees, as in the first photo above. But this scene was great too, with the structural interest of the big oaks, the curving country road, and the fog in the air. This one was edited using a NIK filter, thanks to Jim’s excellent suggestion. I could (and quite likely will) spend hours playing with these filters on my photos.

Algae-covered creek and beaver dam w sig

The bright green of the algae in this scene was a welcome and cheerful display of color on a rainy day. Notice the beaver dam crossing the waterway just behind the algae.

Finally, here’s a scene we shot under threat of lightning and pouring rain.  I think it was worth it.

Woods with color and fog resized w sig

I’m glad to find out I’m not a sissy after all. 😉 I had a great time and learned a lot on this trip, and will be better prepared for my next challenging photography outing.

Posted in Birds, Migration, Photography, Trees | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Reprieve from Insect Withdrawal

For many years, fall has been my favorite season. Not only does it bring the ephemeral reds, oranges, and yellows of tree leaves, but there’s something about the particular shade of blue in the sky on a crisp October day that makes me slow down and breathe more deeply.

Fall leaves in Holly Michigan

But this year I’m finding myself not enjoying the season as much as usual, and it’s not just because the tree colors have been slow to change. No, it’s because of the disappearance of most of the insects I’ve enjoyed photographing all summer long. I realize that I’m faced with months — months!– without dragonflies, crickets, butterflies, bees, and beetles.

The other day I had lunch with a friend who said he’s been having the same sort of feelings, so I imagine there must be many more of us suffering through insect withdrawal.

I was resigned to consoling myself with winter plans to watch ducks and edit my huge backlog of photos, and had already begun to dig into the photo archives.

Then, late this morning I was given an unexpected reprieve. I glanced out the window and found this monster crawling down the front sidewalk. I jumped up with a huge smile on my face, and ran for the camera. Yay, an insect!!

Blister Beetle on my front sidewalk 11-2-17 - Meloidae (3) w sig

Now when I say “monster,” I should clarify that he wasn’t threatening to crush cars or jump over buildings, à la Godzilla. (Although he would make a great movie monster.) Of course I’m just referring to his size relative to most other insects. I’d estimate he was about an inch and a quarter long, maybe an inch and a half. But his elevated body posture and the slow gait of those segmented legs contributed to the impression that he was so much more substantial.

And I was intrigued by the way he was able to bend his body, something I’ve not seen many other insects do. Although I’m still very much a novice entomologist, so that ability could be quite common and I just haven’t seen it yet. It reminded me of the way a praying mantis swivels its head.

Blister Beetle on my front sidewalk 11-2-17 - Meloidae (2) w sig

Oh, I should say that this is a blister beetle, named for its ability to defensively secrete a substance called cantharidin, which causes blisters on skin.  If even small amounts are ingested, death will be quick and painful. In the not-too-distant past, cantharidin was the principal ingredient in the purported aphrodisiac known as Spanish fly. (Here’s an interesting story about the disastrous consequences of ingesting it.)

There are more than 400 species of blister beetle in North America, so I can’t be sure of the exact species of this guy, but can put him confidently in the Meloidae family.

Blister Beetle on my front sidewalk 11-2-17 - Meloidae w sig

And if all that isn’t interesting enough, have you noticed those antennae? The kinked sections in the middle are thought to be adapted for courtship behavior, possibly for grasping the antennae of a female. I think they give him an added cool factor.

Today’s surprise encounter has given me hope that there will still be insects around in the coming months, if I just pay attention. If nothing else, I should be able to find some spiders (arachnids, remember?) right inside my own house, as long as I get to them before the roving gangs of felines find them. 🙂

Blister Beetle on my front sidewalk 11-2-17 - Meloidae (1) w sig

Posted in Insects | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Wordless Wednesday

Sandhill Crane head and neck cropJuvenile Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane with fall foliage

Sandhill Crane at Kensington Metropark in Milford, MI

 

Posted in Birds | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Sky-High Anticipation

Sandhill Crane family vocalizing - grainy dusk pic

Family of Sandhill Cranes vocalizing as they meet in the marsh at dusk

I’ve had a love affair with Sandhill Cranes since the moment I heard their prehistoric-sounding bugling calls.  It’s hard to believe I only saw my first of this species in July of 2011, just two individuals walking around on the lawn at a metropark. Those first birds were silent though, and I had no idea what a thrill was still in store for me. But I found out later that summer, when I had a dramatic encounter with a pair of these statuesque birds on a remote lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

It was near dusk and I was in a kayak on a small private lake, trying to sneak up on a beaver so I could take some photos of it. I was floating quietly near the tall vegetation at the water’s edge…waiting…when suddenly there was a commotion just a few yards away. Before I knew what was happening, a crane burst out of the phragmites and flew right over my head, only 15 feet above me, belting out some of the most spine-tingling sounds I had ever heard.  Click below to hear a sample audio of Sandhill Cranes from the National Park Service.

Sandhill Crane flyover BEST

This photo isn’t from the day I’m describing here, but it illustrates what I saw from my kayak.

My reaction was swift and automatic: I swung my camera up and snapped a couple blurry shots of it before it dropped down on the other side of the small lake. As it did so, I realized its mate had been hidden over there, probably also warily watching my movements around the water. They both continued calling for a couple minutes before eventually settling down for the night. It took a long while before my heart rate settled down that evening, and I can feel it again now as I recall this story.

Why am I talking about Sandhill Cranes now? Because in less than two weeks I’m going to see more of them than I’ve ever seen before, and I just cannot wait! I have to stop letting myself listen to audio and video of them because it’s just making me too excited.

In 2012 I attended Michigan Audubon’s Crane Fest and got a taste of what a mass migration spectacle is like. The number of cranes in the marsh at Baker Sanctuary that year was several thousand. I loved the experience, and got some distant photos of the birds in the water as well as some flyover shots. I went back to Baker Sanctuary with my friend Tracy a couple weeks ago, but the cranes were very distant and not present in large numbers. Although we found a few hundred of them during the day, foraging in farm fields in the surrounding area.

Sandhill Cranes in flightBut now I’m preparing for my first experience at Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area in northern Indiana. I’m told it’ll be possible to see maybe 8,000 cranes this time, and in much closer viewing conditions. I’ve watched some videos from Jasper-Pulaski on YouTube, and I can tell it’s going to be one of the highlights of my year.

And, to make it even more exciting, I’ll have a brand new camera in tow!  My trusty Canon 60D has become a bit outdated and I think my newer Canon will give me more options.  I’m very close to springing for a new telephoto lens too, but can’t get myself to put that money out just yet. But anyway, I hope the camera arrives as expected so I can have several days to familiarize myself with it before the trip. Since many of these crane photos were taken in low light conditions, I’ve pushed the ISO setting on my camera too high, resulting in a lot of graininess. I’m hoping to get better results with my new camera and my slowly-improving photography skills. 🙂

Crane silhouette v1

Silhouette of a crane dropping from the sky with landing gear down

Along with their statuesque beauty and that fantastic trumpeting call, Sandhill Cranes are known for the “dancing” they perform as part of their mating and bonding rituals. I’ve seen this many times, and it never gets old. Imagine, if you will, hundreds or thousands of 4-foot-tall birds dropping from the sky into a marsh. Don’t forget to imagine those raucous calls too. And now picture many small family groups gathering within the large group, jumping up and down with enormous wings raised in greeting. It’s hard not to get choked up with emotion when you see and hear this joyous and life-affirming spectacle. (Here’s a video I found on YouTube.)

Chains of origami cranes

Me with origami cranes at a shrine in Tokyo, 1985

Cranes have been important symbols in many cultures around the world, including in Japan, where I spent five years of my life (a looong time ago). One quality they are believed to embody is longevity. They were said to live for 1,000 years; in reality they can live for more than 30 years, so perhaps they deserve this one. Because they mate for life, they are also used to represent fidelity. It’s also believed that if you make an origami chain of 1,000 cranes and leave it at a shrine, your prayer will be answered.  As you can see from the photo above, people really do make huge numbers of those tiny folded paper cranes.

Two cranes in formation

It’s surprising how often my photos show cranes in synchronized poses like this one. They’re mesmerizing no matter what they’re doing, but I particularly enjoy the transition from the sky to the ground, when they drop those long dangly legs below them.

Cranes landing with legs hanging down

I think they look like giant marionettes, with someone above working their strings, frantically trying to get those lanky legs positioned properly below them before they hit the ground. I really hope I’ll be back here in a couple weeks showing you even better pictures of these incredible birds.

 

Sandhill Cranes in marsh at Baker Sanctuary 2012

Cranes in the marsh at Baker Sanctuary in Michigan

Resources for further reading about Sandhill Cranes:

Birds of North America, by Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Michigan Audubon’s Crane Fest, held each October as birds are heading south for the winter.

Audubon Nebraska’s Crane Festival, held in March as the birds are heading north for the summer breeding season.

Posted in Birds, Migration | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Butterflies of the Night

Large Maple Spanworm moth

Large Maple Spanworm Moth (Prochoerodes lineola), from my yard

This summer I started paying much closer attention to moths than ever before. Most of us don’t think about these critters unless we’re swatting them away from the porch light so they don’t get into our houses. We rarely stop to look at them, much less to think about their role in the ecosystem. But they’re often just as pretty as their daytime counterparts, the butterflies, and just as important.

Along with being a popular food for birds, moths serve the same purpose as butterflies and many other insects: to pollinate plants. But most of them do this important work under cover of darkness, while we’re snug in our beds.  One easy way to enter the world of night-flying moths is to leave your porch lights on and study the insects that come to rest on the walls or windows. It’s also popular these days to shine a black light on a  white sheet, or even put out moth bait, to attract a wider variety of species.

Bronzy Macrochilo moth - I think (5)

This tiny guy might be a Bronzy Macrochilo (Macrochilo orciferalis)

I’ve put out my black light a few times this year (without too much success), but have also found lots of different moths just by walking around in my yard and seeing what flies out of the vegetation around me.  For example, I found this plume moth while mowing the yard just a week ago:

Plume moth - my yard w sig

These little “fighter jets” with their rolled-up wings are fairly common in my yard, and I can never resist trying for a better photo of them. There are almost 150 species of plume moths in North America, and I can’t identify this one.

Single-dotted Wave moth

I think this is a Single-dotted Wave Moth (Idaea dimidiata)

Moth identification involves a steep learning curve, even when you’re equipped with good resources, as I think I am. My primary print source is the Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America, by David Beadle & Seabrooke Leckie. Online I use the North American Moth Photographers’ Group at Mississippi State University. I also belong to a Facebook group called “Mothing Ohio,” where I can ask for help when needed.

Imagine finding something like this and having to flip through photos of thousands of similar brown moths:

Large Yellow Underwing moth - on my front door (Noctua pronuba)

Large Yellow Underwing (Noctua pronuba), on my front porch

It’s one thing if the moth is relatively “fresh” and unworn, so the markings are still clear. It gets much more difficult when they’re faded and tattered.

Some moths are diurnal, or daytime feeders. And so far, it seems that the diurnal moths are generally easier to identify. For instance, here’s one I found feeding on mums in my yard in late October:

Corn Earworm Moth - Helicoverpa zea w sig

This is a Corn Earworm Moth (Helicoverpa zea), clearly in a very worn and faded state near the end of its life. You can still see faint markings on the tattered wings, vague remnants of its earlier beauty.

Another daytime-feeder I really like is the Yellow-collared Scape Moth shown here:

Yellow-collared Scape moth on asters w sig

Yellow-collared Scape Moth (Cisseps fulvicollis)

And here’s the similar-looking Virginia Ctenucha moth:

Another daytime-feeding moth

Virginia Ctenucha (Ctenucha virginica)

This Ailanthus Webworm moth is diurnal too, and not native to this part of the country but now fairly common here.

Ailanthus webworm moth (6)

Ailanthus Webworm Moth (Atteva aurea)

I’ll save some of my other moths for another time, but I just have to share these photos of a spectacular moth I just photographed for the first time yesterday. This is the Buck Moth, a daytime flyer with bold markings of black, white, and orange.  On my first outing to see this species a few days earlier, I’d seen dozens of them flying erratically around a meadow, sometimes bumping clumsily into branches and tall grasses. But we couldn’t find any resting ones to take photos of on that day.

Buck moth dorsal view of spread wings with antennae

But this time we got there early enough that some of them weren’t  yet flying, and we found this one still roosting on a small sapling where it was easy to photograph from inches away. We spent a good five minutes taking shots of this gorgeous male before he finally woke up and flew off to join the other males in search of females.  The adult moths don’t have functional mouth parts and cannot feed. Their only task is to reproduce and then die, leaving their eggs to overwinter so the caterpillars can emerge the following spring.

Buck moth on branch - side view

Buck moth with arrow to tiny feet

After this one flew off, we were able to net a couple other individuals. I was captivated as I got to hold one in my hand and feel his furry little body as he gently walked up my arm. He almost made it up to my shoulder before suddenly taking flight and zigzagging back out on his mating mission.

All of the moths in these photos were found in Lucas County in northwestern Ohio, either in my yard or in the various metroparks and nature preserves.  There’s such diversity represented here already, and I know there are a gazillion more species out there just waiting for me to find them and show them to you!

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Insects, Ohio | Tagged , | 4 Comments

30 Minutes Under an Elm Tree

The other day I went out into my yard to look for any interesting insects I could find so I could practice my macro photography techniques. I was focused primarily on my big American Elm tree and the lawn beneath it, and was reminded of the time several years ago when I wrote about my experiment with “one-tree birding.” This time I wasn’t birding, but wanted to see how many critters I could find living on or near my elm tree.

It didn’t take long for the fun to begin. First there were a couple of dead leaves with empty insect egg cases on them. I wish I knew which type of insects hatched from these, because there were a lot of them.

Insect egg cases on dead elm leaf

This cluster of empty egg casings was only an inch across

Most of the branches of the elm tree are too high for me to inspect, but at one point I saw a ladybug crawling on a leaf several feet above my head. I couldn’t photograph that one, but a few minutes later I found this larval form of a ladybug and decided that he looked like a minuscule black and orange alligator.

Lady beetle larva - my yard (4)

I was paying close attention to every little spot on each leaf,  hoping that some of them might turn out to be insects — and some of them did. To my naked eye, this one looked like a gray dot no bigger than the fine point on a pencil. But when I enlarged the photo, I could see that it was the larva of some kind of insect. I can see eyes and wings, but not enough to even guess the type of creature it will become.  And by the way, how often do you get a view of the cells in a leaf? That illustrates just how much this photo is cropped.

Tiny tiny insect larva to ID - on elm leaf

Eastern Harvestman aka Daddy Longlegs - not a spider (2)

Harvestman, aka daddy longlegs (#NotASpider)

As I was taking pics of that teeny tiny critter, something dropped onto the back of my neck from above. It turned out to be this beautiful harvestman, also known as a daddy longlegs. Many people consider these to be spiders, but they aren’t. They’re arachnids, to be sure, but not spiders.

And I learned something very interesting as I read about this species. Their second pair of legs is extra long, and is specialized for smelling and touching things as they search for food. A daddy longlegs can survive the loss of one (or more) of its regular legs, but if it loses those two specialized legs, it’s doomed because it can’t feed.

All the while I was creeping around in the grass, dozens of these teeny tiny leafhoppers were leaping all around me. They move fast and are about the size of a small splinter you might pull from your finger, so I’m amazed I even got a halfway decent photo of this one.

Teeny tiny leafhopper (3)

The tiniest little leafhopper — see how huge the blades of grass are in comparison?

And…drum roll please…I’ve saved the best discovery for last. Until about a week ago I had never heard of a Handsome Trig, aka Red-headed Bush Cricket (Phyllopalpus pulchellus). When one was pointed out to me on a recent outing at a nature preserve, I was able to get the photo you see below.

Red-headed Bush Cricket aka Handsome Trig - female

But when I got home I regretted that I hadn’t tried to take video of the little female, because she has the most adorable little black “paddles” on the front of her face, which she waves up and down as she walks along in her search for a meal.

Well, much to my surprise, I found another one in my own yard! And I took video this time so I could share the action of the magic dancing paddles with you. I didn’t have time to get my tripod, so it’s a little bit shaky, but I think it’s still worth watching. The first ten seconds are the best part, and then she runs under the leaves and disappears back into her little world.  Enjoy!

It’s amazing how much life you can find in a small area when you pay attention, isn’t it? And each new discovery is an opportunity to understand one more piece of the intricate web of life — I just love that!

Posted in Insects, Ohio, Photography, Toledo, Wildlife | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Gentian Trifecta

I’ve mentioned that this spring and summer have been a time of flower exploration for me. Whereas in past years I  might travel to find certain bird species, this year I traveled around northern Ohio to see our various wildflowers as they bloomed.  I was enthralled by the early spring woodland flowers like Dutchman’s Breeches and White Trillium. Then I was kept busy by the abundance of summer blooms in both woods and meadows — things like the milkweeds, ironweed, coneflowers, and countless others.

And now, as we somehow find ourselves already near the end of September (how did that happen?), I’m pleased to discover that there’s still a surprising variety of fall-blooming flowers. The asters and goldenrods are the most obvious and abundant, often blanketing entire meadows. But there are other late-bloomers out there that I’d never even heard of before this year.

Goldenrod and asters in evening sun

Goldenrod and asters in evening sunlight at the Toledo Botanical Garden

I recently had the opportunity to spend a day exploring some of our Lucas County nature preserves with a botanist friend. Our primary goal was to find and photograph three species of gentians — Bottle Gentian, Fringed Gentian, and the state-endangered Soapwort Gentian.

I’d seen photographs of these beauties but had never seen any of them in person, so was eager to go on this quest.  And oh what a rewarding day this turned out to be, as we found all three species — thus my Gentian Trifecta!

I’ll start with my favorite, the Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis virgata). Thoreau also found them lovely, comparing the blue of these flowers to that on the back of a male bluebird. These stunning flowers only open when the sun is shining, and will remain tightly closed on a cloudy day. When we found this plant it was early enough in the morning that it wasn’t fully opened yet. But when we passed it again about an hour later, it was wide open so we could better photograph the beautiful interior structures and patterns.

Gentianopsis virgata - Fringed Gentian - Irwin Prairie (8)

Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis virgata)

Gentianopsis virgata - Fringed Gentian - Irwin Prairie w sig

Notice those blue lines on the interior of the flower? Those are basically a sign telling bees that “the pollen is this way!”

The second species found on this expedition was the Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii). This species keeps its petals tightly closed at all times. So, I know you’re wondering how it can be pollinated if it doesn’t open up, right? Well, it’s usually only pollinated by the big bumblebee, who is strong enough to pry the top of the flower open and slip inside.

Bottle Gentian - Irwin Prairie (3)

Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii)

Bottle Gentian - Irwin Prairie (5)

The delicate reproductive organs inside the  gentian

The final species we wanted to find this day was the endangered Soapwort Gentian (Gentiana saponaria). This one was a bit more difficult to find, but once we found the first one we looked around and noticed dozens of them hidden among the taller plants in the meadow, a secret treasure trove.

Soapwort Gentian - Gentiana saponaria - for blog (841x1024)

Soapwort Gentian (Gentiana saponaria)

As with the Bottle Gentian, this one keeps its petals closed as well, forcing a pollinator to either pry it open at the top, or chew through from the outside. We did find one or two flowers with holes in the sides, evidence that someone had done exactly that. (Several people have posted videos on YouTube showing bees going inside the closed gentians — here’s one of them.)

We found many more fascinating life forms on this outing, including caterpillars, spiders, and other types of flowers. But since blue was the theme of this day, we were pleased to finish up in a meadow teeming with the stunning Blue-faced Meadowhawks, some of whom were quite easily photographed as they perched on Knotted Rush (Juncus nodosus).

Blue-faced Meadowhawk (10) w sig - on knotted rush, Juncus nodosus

Blue-faced Meadowhawk on knotted rush - Juncus nodosus - w sig

I’m already feeling wistful about the end of this amazing summer, but am reminded that every season brings something different to explore and celebrate in the natural world. And I have a feeling that the predominant color in my next post might be gold or red, as the trees are already beginning their autumn show.

Posted in Insects, native plants, wildflowers | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

A Day at the Beach

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you won’t be misled by that title. But if you’re new around here and are expecting photos of people swimming…well, sorry about that.

Magee beach view - Sept 16 2017 (800x600)

Beach view at Magee Marsh, east of Toledo, Ohio

I did spend a couple hours at the beach on the shore of Lake Erie yesterday, but I was hunting for insects to photograph. Just prior to this solo outing, I had spent a day with a friend who’s an expert botanist and photographer, and he gave me lots of tips that reinvigorated my interest in learning to use my camera better. So this time I wanted to go out on my own to see what kind of results I could get.

All the photos in this post were taken in an area about 50 yards wide, less than 30 yards from the lake edge. I barely had to move at all to discover a whole world at my feet.

Sumacs at Magee for blog post Sept 2017 (640x480)

Armed with my new secret power — finding the insects by examining their food plants — I planned to start by investigating a small stand of young Staghorn Sumacs. But as I walked toward them, I almost walked right into this:

Green Darner female - Anax junius (7) (800x612)

Common Green Darner (Anax junius)

It’s a Common Green Darner resting on a dead milkweed stem. I think it’s a teneral stage, meaning that it’s in the first day of life since it emerged from its exuvia. When they first emerge, they have to give their wings time to “inflate” before they can perform the aerial maneuvers for which they’re known. This relative immobility made it easy for me to kneel very close to it and take a few shots with my 100mm macro lens. Notice that “bullseye” mark on the front of the head? I love that. Here’s a closer view of that part:

Green Darner female - Anax junius (3)

The bullseye mark is an easy way to distinguish a Green Darner from the very similar Comet Darner

After I backed up from the dragonfly, I immediately noticed a couple caterpillars feeding on the sumac. I took some photos of them and then noticed that there were at least a dozen of this same species of caterpillar feeding all around me.

Spotted Datana caterpillar curled up (800x533)

Spotted Datana caterpillar underside view (800x533)

This guy is at the end of a branch after all the leaves have been eaten. He had to turn around and find another branch.

These are the larvae of the Spotted Datana moth (Datana perspicua), and sumac is one of their primary food plants. See how this works? You find their food source and you find the insects.  See, I told you it was a secret power.

And by the way, my favorite field guide for caterpillars is Caterpillars of Eastern North America, by David Wagner. It includes an index to the plants as well as the insects, so you can look up a plant and see which caterpillars use it as a food source. And even if you aren’t going to go hunting for caterpillars, you can have your mind blown just by flipping through this book to see the incredible variety of camouflage techniques and other defensive adaptations that have evolved in these critters.

Spotted Datana caterpillar burrowing underground to pupate (2)I watched the cats for a while, hoping to see one of them begin to pupate into its chrysalis form. I saw one begin to dangle from a fine filament and curl up into a ring shape, and I quickly set up to shoot some video. But I got about two seconds of video before he dropped to the ground. Disappointed, I went looking for another possible target. I saw another one drop to the ground, and this time I continued watching it. Some caterpillars burrow into the ground instead of making a hanging chrysalis on a plant. And sure enough, this guy began digging into the soil beneath the sumacs and within about 90 seconds he was gone.

It’s incredible how much more you can learn when you spend more time watching them go about their lives, rather than just shooting a few photos and going in search of something else. I must have spent a half hour watching the Datanas on those sumacs, and it was hard to pull myself away from them.

But eventually I wandered slowly along the sandy path and found quite a few more interesting specimens.

Common Buckeye butterfly - Junonia coenia (2)

Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia)

Then I saw this female Field Cricket who was missing one of her rear legs. When she didn’t hop away, I realized she was dead. But a dead insect is much easier to photograph, so there’s that, I guess. I found a few more dead crickets near her, so I’m not sure what happened there. Some sort of cricket apocalypse, I guess.

Field cricket female

As I walked on the beach next to the water, I spotted this small and fast-moving character, who turns out to be a Webworm Moth larva.

Hyphantria cunea - fall webworm caterpillar (4) (800x457)

Fall Webworm Moth caterpillar (Hyphantria cunea)

You may have seen these critters living in big groups in large webby “tents” that cover the ends of tree branches. They make the tree look messy, but from what I’ve read, they aren’t generally a severe threat to the health of the tree.

I went back to the sumacs once more and took a video of one of the Datanas eating leaves (that video is at the bottom of this post). But while there, I heard a katydid singing from inside the sumacs. I believe most katydids are nocturnal singers, but this species is a daytime singer. Meet the cutest little katydid you’ll ever see:

Black-legged Meadow Katydid singing on Sumac (8) w sig

Black-legged Meadow Katydid (Orchelimum nigripes)

He sat still for me for about five seconds, and then he quickly hid behind a thick stem. I kept trying to get as close as possible for photos, and he would peek around one side of the stem, see me, then move to the other side. We played a little game of peek-a-boo for a minute or so, and then I backed off and left him in peace.

I also like how these photos show the hairs on the young stems of the sumac that gave it the name Staghorn, because of the resemblance to a deer’s antlers when they’re covered in velvet.

Black-legged Meadow Katydid singing on Sumac (2) w sig

Playing peek-a-boo with a katydid

There were lots of interesting creatures out and about on the beach that day, and I had a fantastic time playing detective in the sand.  And I’m really happy with the results I’m getting with my photography now too. I can’t wait to get back out there!

Oh, before I go, here’s the video of the Spotted Datana eating a sumac leaf:

 

Posted in Insects, Photography | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Going Native in Toledo

Swamp milkweed for blog

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) – valuable host plant for Monarch butterflies

In recent years, I’ve spent a lot of time around people who are knowledgeable about various aspects of the natural world: ornithologists, entomologists, and botanists — both professional and amateur.  Like me, most of my friends are passionate about their interests in birds, insects, or plants.  Our idea of a good time is heading out into a nature preserve with binoculars and a camera to investigate and document what’s currently blooming or breeding.

We contribute to citizen-science projects, sometimes obsessively. We go birding and enter our bird counts into eBird. We find dragonflies or wildflowers and enter them in iNaturalist.  Sounds sort of geeky, doesn’t it?  Yeah, it is.

Silver-spotted Skipper on Ironweed for blog

Silver-spotted Skipper on Ironweed

And I love how much richer my life has become since I’ve begun paying closer attention to the natural world. Being a nature geek is a badge I wear proudly.

Bringing Nature Home - cover imageI’ve begun to think of it as earning “merit badges” in natural history. I’ve got my birder badge, and I’m working on badges for wildflowers, butterflies, and dragonflies. I think my writing on this blog probably qualifies me for some type of badge too, maybe for helping to share what I’ve learned with other people.  (Hey, I like this idea of inventing new badges to award myself!)

I’m about to begin work on my next merit badge as an amateur naturalist: Native Plant Gardener. Ever since I read “Bringing Nature Home” (by Doug Tallamy) several years ago, I’ve yearned for a garden where I could begin experimenting with native plants. And now I finally have the perfect opportunity, so I’m going for it.

Boneset for blog

Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) – it has a  delicate, sweet fragrance

In North America, native plants are defined as plants that existed in a particular area prior to European settlement of this continent. These plants evolved to thrive in local growing conditions, and are therefore much easier to grow – they need less water, fewer pesticides, and less tending in general. So they save the gardener time and money, for starters. And, just as important, they are food sources for our native insects, so they are an integral part of the web of life.

I’m still studying this, but I’ve learned that the specific chemical composition of each plant makes it edible by specific species of insects. The ability of an insect to digest a particular plant is something that evolved over thousands of years, and if the insect’s food source disappears, the insect will soon follow because it often cannot eat the non-native plants that have taken the place of the native plants.

beetles - Pennsylvania Leatherwing on Boneset - eupatorium perfoliatum (2).jpg

Common Boneset hosting a Viceroy butterfly and quite a few Pennsylvania Leatherwing beetles.

In this first phase of my project, I’ve started making an inventory of all the trees, shrubs, and flowers that are already growing in my garden. I’m researching them all to find out which ones are natives and which are non-natives, and starting to compile a list of the native plants I’d like to grow here.

My goals are to provide host plants for important pollinators like bees, butterflies, and moths. (Fun fact: Did you know that moths pollinate flowers at night in the same way that butterflies and bees do in the daytime? It’s true.) I’ll try to choose plants that are hosts for the insect larvae as well as providing nectar for the adult insects.

Blue lupines v3 (1) (1280x853)

Wild Lupines (Lupinus perennis) – I have one surviving in my yard now, and will add more.

In the next few weeks I’ll be removing some undesirable plants, and over the coming winter I’ll be making plans for my first native plant bed. I’m trying hard to restrain my enthusiasm at first, because I don’t want to get in over my head and not be able to handle it all.  It’s tempting to go around the yard digging up everything non-native, but that would be the wrong way to go about this. And it would look awful too.

I’ve joined the local chapter of Wild Ones, a nonprofit association with the mission of promoting “environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity through the preservation, restoration and establishment of native plant communities.” I’m excited to be attending my first meeting soon and I hope my membership in Wild Ones will accelerate my learning process. The more I learn, the more I realize how much more there still is to learn.

In the meantime, I’m continuing to daydream about the beautiful Ohio prairie flowers that will soon be growing in my yard, and all the interesting insects who will come to live here with them.

Monarch butterfly on goldenrod - for blog

Monarch on Goldenrod

Resources: I highly recommend Doug Tallamy’s book, shown above (click the book cover to go to Amazon). But if you want a clickable source of more information about why native plants are important, check out this article on the Audubon website (“Why Native Plants Matter”). It includes a video clip of Doug Tallamy, as well as a searchable database that will give you a list of plants that are native to your particular zip code.

Posted in Flowers and Gardening, Insects, native plants | Tagged , | 9 Comments