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!

Hanging Out With Naturalists

Bee on Chicory flower - close up w sigThis morning I participated in a Toledo Naturalists’ Association field trip to Wiregrass Lake Metropark.  I joined this organization months before I moved to Toledo, but this was my first opportunity to join them on a field trip. The purpose of today’s outing was to find dragonflies, but we also looked at birds, butterflies, flowers, and moths.

And I found that I really enjoyed being with a group of people with such varied interests. When we found a wildflower, there was someone who knew exactly what it was and whether it was native or invasive. When we found a moth, someone else knew that one. And quite a few of us knew the birds as well.  What a fun and educational morning!

Even without paying much attention to the birds, I recorded 26 species during our walk, including Veery, Wood Thrush, and Yellow-breasted Chat, all singing their beautiful songs.

Eastern Tailed Blue butterfly - Cupido comyntas w sig

This is an Eastern Tailed-blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas). This adorable little critter was less than an inch across. The identification key to this species are the orange spots on the hindwing, and the little tail spikes.

Fragile Forktail damselfly - nice one w sig

This is my first photo of a Fragile Forktail (Ischnura posita), and isn’t he a beauty? I call this photo “Green on Green” because of how the greens of the insect contrast nicely with the green foliage in the background. I find it very visually interesting. Can you see the green exclamation mark on his back?Variable Dancer damselfly drinking from raindrop w sig

And then we have one of my favorite damselflies, the Violet (Variable) Dancer (Argia fumipennis violacia). First of all, he’s purple! I mean, c’mon, how cool is that? And look at this guy — it looks like he’s taking a drink from a raindrop on the leaf.  Seriously, this just makes me smile. (I don’t think they actually drink water like this, but still….)

Variable Dancer damselfly on Horsetail - close crop w sigI photographed another Variable Dancer perched on horsetail (above), an ancient plant that, to me at least, looks like a cross between bamboo and asparagus. It’s a very cool-looking plant, but you do not want it in your garden because it will spread everywhere, and it’s apparently a nightmare to eradicate.

Horsetail - ancient plant - aggressive (640x427)
Horsetail (I think this is Equisetum arvense)

This next picture was taken at the same location a couple days ago, and shows a Calico Pennant (Celithemis elisa) also perched on horsetail near a patch of Black-eyed Susans.

Calico Pennant on horsetail w rudbeckia w sig

This last one is a photo I took of Wiregrass Lake a couple days ago when the water surface was calm enough to see the reflection of the clouds above. One of these days I’m going to get a kayak out on that lake and spend hours sneaking up on dragonflies….

Clouds reflected on Wiregrass Lake w sig

I wish I could go on a hike like this every week, with a variety of subject-matter experts like we had today. Not only did my brain get what it needed, but my body got sunlight and fresh air, and my soul absorbed the sights and sounds of nature — a Gray Catbird chattering from the edge of the woods, a Green Heron flying high over the lake, a Comet Darner zipping back and forth along the shore as he patrolled his territory, and butterflies feeding on fragrant milkweed flowers. You know you’re getting some serious ecotherapy when you can feel your breathing slow as you turn your face to the sun and feel the gentle breeze across your cheeks. Yep, today reaffirmed what I’ve known for a long time: Nature Is (definitely) My Therapy.

Here There Be Dragons!

Calico Pennant male at Wiregrass lake
Calico Pennant (Celithemis elisa)

It’s that time again–it’s early summer and the odonata are plentiful and active. You may have noticed that I’ve been dabbling in dragonflies for several years, and have written about them a few times:

Thrashers, Dashers, and Mayflies (July 2016)

Things That Float and Things That Fly (July 2015)

Herps and Odes, Dragons and Toads (July 2013)

This year as I take a break from birding, I’m stepping up my efforts to learn about and photograph odonata.  So yesterday I spent the afternoon dragon hunting with a friend who is much more knowledgeable about them than I am. And more skilled at finding them as well.  He took me to a place where he knew we could find clubtails, a type of dragonfly I’d never seen before. And sure enough, within a few minutes of arriving, we’d seen multiples of two different species, the Pronghorn Clubtail and the Dusky Clubtail. I didn’t get a good photo of the Dusky, but here’s one I like of the Pronghorn, even though his tail end is out of focus. I like his face.

Pronghorn Clubtail dragonfly
Pronghorn Clubtail (Gomphus graslinellus)

As we continued walking and chatting, he would casually point out another species over there, and then another one over here, even identifying them as they flew far out over the water. I was impressed with how easily he could name each species, and it was a little bit overwhelming. It reminded me of how I felt the first year I came to Ohio to see the warbler migration — people around me were pointing out one species after another and I could barely look at one before they pointed out another.

But just as it did with warblers, this will just take some time and experience.  One of the tricks with learning birds, which I think will work the same with the dragons, is to get very familiar with the common species first. Then it becomes easier to know when you’ve found something different, and you can pay closer attention to it.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer dragonfly - Irwin Prairie
Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) with a mite on the back of its head

And, as with birds, you learn the particular habitats for each species, and the timing of their migrations and/or breeding cycles, and all of that information helps you to figure out what you might see at a given time in a given location.

Painted Skimmer dragonfly
Painted Skimmer (Libellula semifasciata)

Unlike birds, there are many species of odonata that can only be identified if you have them in your hand to examine the fine details of their complex bodies. That’s why some people use nets to catch them and see them better. But I don’t see myself doing that, at least at this point. (And you usually need a permit to do that in a park or nature preserve.) So I’ll have to accept the fact that, even if I get excellent photos, I won’t always be able to identify every species I come across. But that’s okay with me. This is something I’m doing for fun, for the simple pleasure of learning new things.

Bluets at Wiregrass Lake
Two different species of Bluets, a type of damselfly

Will I keep a species list? Maybe. Or maybe I’ll just enjoy being outdoors in the sunshine surrounded by these fascinating creatures. There’s something so refreshing about just being, without the need to record everything I see. Yeah, I think I could get used to this feeling.

By the way, go back up to the top picture of the Calico Pennant–did you notice that the red spots are heart-shaped? I didn’t either, until my friend Donna pointed it out to me. I think this one will now be nicknamed the Love Dragon. 🙂

Note: All of the odonata in this post were photographed on June 6, 2017 in northwest Ohio.

Cannibal Encounter at Creek Bend Farm

Meadow at Creek Bend Farm - early fall (800x533)
Meadow path at Creek Bend Farm
Silver-spotted Skipper on thistle (800x741)
Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus)

Here in northwest Ohio we’re enjoying some very comfortable fall-like weather lately. After spending most of the summer with temperatures in the 80s and 90s, I’m very grateful for this change that makes me want to be outside all the time. I’ve been riding my bike a couple times a week, and going for more nature walks too. Today I had a bit of a false start when I drove an hour to one of the Toledo metroparks and hardly found any wildlife activity at all. Very few birds or butterflies, and far too many people. (I should have expected the people on this holiday weekend…oops.)

So after putting in a good effort for about 90 minutes, I headed back toward home feeling a bit frustrated. Then I decided to stop at Creek Bend Farm, a place that’s become one of my favorite local birding spots in the year since I moved here. I walked out through the meadow, moving slowly to lessen the chances of scaring off any interesting insects or birds.

Cabbage White - Pieris rapae (800x759)
Cabbage White butterfly (Pieris rapae)

I saw quite a few dragonflies but none of them landed anywhere so I couldn’t get photos. The butterflies were more cooperative though, and I saw a Silver-spotted Skipper, some Pearl Crescents, lots of Cabbage Whites and Sulphurs, and a nice Viceroy. And I think I saw a Monarch too, but it was too fast for me to confirm that.

Viceroy Butterfly (800x533)
Viceroy butterfly (Limenitus archippus) 

There was a big flock of Tree Swallows moving over the meadow, and a couple times the flock came down low and swarmed all around me. It was a glorious experience!  I took a short video of the wildflowers blowing in the breeze — I think this will help you imagine what it felt like out there today:

Oh, so you’re probably curious about my cannibal encounter, aren’t you? Okay, so the meadow paths eventually wrap around and intersect the path that borders the creek. This is the path I was walking on:

Path at Creek Bend Farm with coneflowers (800x533)

Soon after I turned onto the creek path, I heard the unmistakable buzz and squeak of a hummingbird. I turned around just in time to see this little one fly into a tree and begin a preening session.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird v2
Ruby-throated Hummingbird

I’m assuming this is a female, but it could be a young male. (At this time of year it’s hard to differentiate the two because the juvenile male won’t have his red throat yet.) I always get a thrill when I see a hummer out in “the wild” like this, away from a feeder. So I watched her for a few minutes, snapping photos as best I could manage through the leaves. I thought you might like to see this one because it shows her using her foot to scratch her throat, in a way that reminds me of how cats and dogs do it. I hope you can see it here…the photo isn’t the greatest.

Ruby-throated hummingbird preening with foot

Ruby-throated hummingbird v3

I started to move on down the path but only got three steps away from the hummingbird’s location when I heard another loud buzzing. I looked up and saw a large insect land in a tree beside me. My first impression was that it was a cicada.

Robber fly - maybe Red-footed Cannibal fly - see closeup (800x666)

But as I grabbed my binoculars for a closer look, I saw that it was one of the coolest insects ever, a Red-footed Cannibal Fly. And it had a victim already clasped in its legs, a large bee. It had already begun injecting enzymes into the bee to liquify the insides so they could be sucked out. Sounds appetizing, doesn’t it?

Robber Fly - maybe Red-footed Cannibal fly v2 - see close up (800x610)

This is a type of Robber Fly in the genus Promachus. I’m not positive of the species, but it has red legs so that seems like it fits the Red-footed Cannibal Fly (Promachus rufipes). I was so excited to see this, but I had a heck of a time trying to get a photo in the depths of shade under the tree. Then the fly moved to another branch with better light and I got this one that shows more detail of this creature’s interesting body.

Robber Fly - maybe Red-footed Cannibal Fly - promachus genus (800x547)

My first encounter with this fascinating insect was at Blue Heron Reserve last fall, where I took this photo of two of them resting on a boardwalk:

Red-footed Cannibal Fly - 2 of them (800x535)

They’re a couple of inches long and very intimidating. Especially if you’re a smaller insect! And I discovered that these predators have been known to prey on…wait for it….hummingbirds! So I guess the little hummer in the next tree was very lucky this hungry killer had already found a victim.

Okay, this has been long already, but I don’t want to leave you with visions of gut-sucking cannibals, so here are some pretty dogwood berries. I hope that makes up for it. 🙂

Either Gray Dogwood or Red Osier Dogwood
Dogwood berries