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:

 

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3 Responses to A Day at the Beach

  1. pat clair says:

    I am not fond of insects normally but you sure make them more interesting when you see them up close. We have those thousand legged things in our basement that I hate but wonder what they look like close in one of your shots. I am sure you know the actual name of them but I really hate those things-hard to catch too!

  2. Littlesundog says:

    The common buckeye is one of my favorite butterflies – I see them often in the orchard. This is a good time of year to see many of the fuzzy caterpillars – which of course I am not fond of since they are destructive to plants and trees. Your photographs help me see them from a better perspective.

    • Kim Smith says:

      Yes, I imagine you do see them differently since you’ve got an entire orchard to protect from damage. Just out of curiosity, I checked the “host plant” index in my caterpillar field guide, and it lists 10 species of caterpillars that feed on pecan trees. One of the most gorgeous is the Pin-striped Vermilion Slug.

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