Well, That Was Interesting!

Female calico pennant on spent flower head Kim Clair Smith
This female Calico Pennant and her flower perch have both seen better days.

I had a rewarding experience today while doing my dragonfly monitoring at Wiregrass Lake. It was a beautiful morning and there were only a couple other people at the park, so there were few distractions as I was concentrating on counting odes and taking documentation photos.

About halfway around the lake, a guy with a fishing pole came past me and stepped out onto one of the little stone fishing platforms. They’re popular fishing spots because there aren’t many accessible areas of shoreline from which to cast a line. But they’re also preferred perching spots for certain dragonflies, so I always approach them slowly and hope to find something interesting there.

So when this guy stepped out onto the rocks, I admit to feeling a little twinge of irritation that he would have flushed any good bugs that might have been there. But I know the parks have to serve people with varied recreational interests, and his interest just happened to conflict with mine. I have to be accepting of that, I get it.

But here’s where things became interesting.

Just as I said a friendly hello to him, a pair of mating Common Green Darners landed on some floating vegetation in front of us and began ovipositing. I was very excited because I’d been trying to get some photos of those darn darners as they flew around the lake, so this was a perfect opportunity to get an easy shot. As I often do, I expressed my excitement to the person who happened to be nearest to me, the guy with his fishing line barely ten feet from my target insects. I admit that I was also telling him about them so he wouldn’t throw his line at them and scare them before I got my photo. My comment was ignored, or so I thought. He didn’t say anything as I shot several photos, and I thought he must just think I’m a weird bug dork. (And I am, I know.)

Common green darners in tandem - blog Kim Clair Smith
Common Green Darner pair ovipositing in floating vegetation

But then he started asking me questions about what they were doing. He wanted to know if they were laying eggs in the water. He wanted to know how long it would be before the eggs hatched, and how long dragonflies lived. I was overjoyed to find someone who actually wanted to hear this stuff, and so I dove in and gave him much more information than he’d bargained for. I told him about how green darners migrate like monarch butterflies. I explained about how their larvae emerge from their “shells” just like cicadas do. Each time I spouted another fact about their life history, he seemed eager to know more.

But finally I realized I would just go on for an hour if he didn’t stop me, and so I apologized for bombarding him with information and started to leave. But he actually thanked me and said “That was very interesting!” and that instantly became one of the best moments of my entire day.

ODES license plate and BugDork sticker
Yep, that’s my car!

It’s human nature to want other people to share our interests, isn’t it? I wrote about nonconformity and social acceptance in my last post, and I’m reminded of it again today. I’m used to being looked at as an oddity when I gush about my latest nature passion, whether it’s birds, dragonflies, or hoverflies. It doesn’t bother me much, because these things give me a deeper appreciation for the workings of the natural world, and make my life rich and rewarding. So I can deal with being looked at that way. But on those occasions like today, when a total stranger shows interest in something and lets me tell them about it, I’m overjoyed and feel like I’ve made an important contribution to that person’s connection to the natural world too.

monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed Kim Clair Smith
Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed, its host plant.

As I walked away to continue my monitoring, I smiled to myself as I imagined that guy telling his wife about our encounter over dinner tonight. “Honey, would you pass the salad please? And by the way, did you know that dragonflies can live under water for years before they emerge as flying insects?” You never know, it could happen. And that’s exactly why I write this blog, to share what I learn about nature with the hope that you, my readers, will be excited enough about it to tell someone else.  And if you do, I hope you’ll tell me about it. 🙂

Native Gardeners: Monkeys in Clothes

I’ve been struggling with my transition to native gardening, on a couple levels. The first and most obvious is trying to manage the more aggressive plants while nurturing those that need more space, light, or water.  I’d been told that Monarda fistulosa (Bee balm / bergamot) is aggressive, but I was stunned when it virtually took over my entire bed in its second year!

My first year native bed July 16 2018 - blog
Year one – July 16, 2018 – Monarda barely visible
Garden year 2 on July 22 2019 v2 - blog
Year two – July 22, 2019 – an explosion of Monarda!

And many of these plants get so tall that they need staking so the ones on the perimeter don’t flop down on the ground. (For reference, that’s a six-foot fence.) And in my first year, I was so enthusiastic that I got too many plants and just put them in the ground without enough consideration of their mature heights, so I’ve got some shorter plants that are being bullied by taller plants around them.  I knew better, but enthusiasm won out over reason. I’m working on that, I’m learning as I go, and I’m sure I’ll figure the logistics out eventually.

But on another more troubling front, I’ve been feeling conflicted about what this transition means in terms of the opinions of my neighbors.

Overgrown weeds by Keturah Stickann on Flickr - blog
This is NOT the look we’re going for!      (Photo courtesy of Keturah Stickann)

It’s no secret that native plants aren’t as “neat” as the cultivars sold in most garden stores. As I mentioned above, some of them get tall…really tall. Most of them don’t have obvious clumping forms that indicate where one plant begins and another ends. In other words, they can look messy. Or, dare I say it, weedy.

I’m certainly not the first person to struggle with this dilemma, and if I lived in a neighborhood with an HOA (Homeowners’ Association), I’d likely not be as free to experiment as I am here. Not long ago I lived within the confines of an HOA, and I had to get written permission to replace a rose bush with a purple coneflower beside my mailbox. No kidding.

Sterile lawn in front of traditional house - Photo by Milly Eaton from Pexels
This lawn doesn’t support any life…it’s sterile and depressing. (Photo by Milly Eaton via Pexels)

Native plant gardeners have discovered that we have to be careful to design our gardens so that it’s obvious that we have a plan. We have to include clearly marked pathways, bed outlines, and sometimes even educational signage, so that our gardens won’t be mistaken for neglected weeds.

By deciding to transition to native gardening, I knew that I would be going against what’s accepted as normal gardening in our culture. We’re supposed to have pristine green lawns and neat beds of flowers lining sidewalks and foundations.  But once I learned how unhealthy that type of environment is — for us as well as for the earth that sustains us — I just had to make some changes.

Shrubby st. john's wort Kim Clair Smith
Shrubby St. John’s Wort in my garden

These days, when I drive through neighborhoods of cookie-cutter-non-life-supporting-barren lawns, I feel sad and depressed. It’s unfortunate that we’ve gotten so far detached from the natural world that we try to kill any signs of it that dare to encroach on what we’ve claimed as “ours.”  As a culture, we have forgotten that humans are part of the natural world. We need to rethink our connections to the rest of the life forms on this planet, or be prepared to suffer the consequences when we break critical links in the web of life because we don’t understand or care about them.

As an example, we have red foxes living in our urban Toledo neighborhood, and I occasionally delight to see one of them trotting down my front sidewalk early in the morning. Recently my neighbor told me of a minor disagreement between two other neighbors.  Apparently one person said they should be feeding the foxes, and the other one said they should trap them. My reaction to all this: Why in the world would you do either of those things?! Why not let them be, and just be glad that they’re here to help control rodents in our neighborhood? Jeez, people make me crazy sometimes.

Fork-tailed bush katydid on purple coneflower Kim Clair Smith
Fork-tailed bush katydid, a good food source for birds in my garden

Anyway, this isn’t the first time I’ve been a nonconformist. Periodically when I’m eating a vegetarian or vegan diet, some people are uncomfortable with and judgmental about my choice.  I think that’s because they think that my decision not to eat meat is an implicit criticism of their choice to continue to eat meat. They’re curious about my choice, and ask questions about it, but then want to argue when I explain it to them. It’s frustrating and exhausting.

Tiger swallowtail on butterfly milkweed Kim Clair Smith
Eastern tiger swallowtail on butterfly milkweed in my garden

Humans are social animals, and we evolved to understand that we needed the approval of the other humans in order to survive. We no longer need that approval for sheer physical survival, but it’s still painful to be misunderstood by others. Being a nonconformist is a difficult choice, but it’s usually driven by a belief that we are doing something that is less detrimental than the accepted traditions of our society. But even with a strong conviction that we’re making the right choice, it can be difficult to endure the harsh judgments of others who don’t understand our motivations.

Eastern calligrapher fly Kim Clair Smith
Eastern calligrapher fly in my garden —  great little pollinators!

So, those of us trying to grow native plants often face criticism from neighbors who may not understand there’s a higher purpose to what we’re doing. They may assume we’re lazy, or that our gardens will attract insects that they deem pests. I’ve learned that a garden buzzing with a variety of bees and flies is a sign of a healthy ecosystem, but most people still try to swat the bees or run away in fear or disgust.  Or they may think that we’re trying to be rebels just for the sake of being different. And people don’t like those who violate the norms of society.

I’m lucky that my backyard is mostly shielded from view by a privacy fence, so I feel free to do what I want back there. But my choice to forgo chemical lawn care means that my lawn isn’t anywhere near what would be considered proper by most people. I’ve got tons of crabgrass and other weeds in the lawn and it’s a little bit embarrassing when someone wants to see the garden. I mean, I’m SO proud of my native garden, but I understand that other people won’t see it the way I see it.  Where I see pollinator habitat, they see messiness and insects — Oh, the horror! But am I willing to put toxic chemicals on the lawn just so people will approve of me? Nope.

I recently read an article about nonconformity that claimed that people will perceive you differently based on whether they think you’re breaking the norms on purpose or out of ignorance. If they think you’re doing it with full understanding that you’re breaking the norms, they’ll be more accepting, and may even respect you for it. But if they think you just don’t know any better, well, you’re destined to be scorned.

I’ll end this little rant with my favorite advice about being a nonconformist, which comes from author Evan Tarver:

REALIZE THAT YOU’RE A MONKEY IN CLOTHES

This might make you feel uncomfortable, but this makes me extremely comfortable. The best way to beat social pressure is to realize that deep down, all you are is a monkey in clothes. You’re a primate, an animal, and all your fears about not fitting in with society are silly when you think about it in these terms. In fact, for me, it creates a bit of absurdity that allows me to laugh in almost any situation, making it easier to do what I want even if other people won’t get it.

So what if you don’t follow society’s defined path? Who cares if you ignore the social pressure you feel and march to the beat of your own drum. Ultimately, all you are is an advanced primate who finds him or herself playing house every day. So, where is the real risk when deciding whether to go against the grain or not? The worst that can happen is that a bunch of other monkeys in clothes get mad at you for not fitting into a box they understand. Silly monkeys.

 

Creatures of the Night

Luna moth with frame and sig
Luna moth (Actias luna) – he’s about 4 inches across

It stands to reason that if you want to see things that are out in the dark, you need to become a creature of the night as well. And that’s exactly what I did this past weekend.

Basswood leafroller w sig
Basswood Leafroller

You’ve certainly heard of events celebrating birds and butterflies, but you may not have heard of Mothapalooza. It’s an event held in southern Ohio every other year, and the main activity at the weekend affair is gathering at lighted sheets in the middle of the night to look at moths. This was my first time to experience it, and I loved the geekiness of it all, and the chance to see so many stunning moths. The lodge at Shawnee State Park is the headquarters, and that’s where the talks and meals take place. Many attendees stay in the lodge and more fill the two dozen cabins behind the lodge. I stayed in a cabin with my friends George, Angie, and Jackie.

Most people don’t give moths a second thought unless they’re swatting them away from the porch light to keep them out of the house. Did you know that many moths are pollinators? Yep, butterflies and bees do this important work during the day, while moths work the night shift. It’s so cool to realize that the ecosystem doesn’t sleep when we do; there are critical interactions happening all night long!

Mothing sheets (4)
Typical mothing setup at Mothapalooza

I’ve tried setting up my own light system to attract moths here at home, but have had limited success with that so far. (I think it’s partly because I hesitate to use a bright enough light for fear my neighbors will complain about the crazy bug lady.)

Kim holding polyphemus moth
Nighttime selfie with Polyphemus moth

As you can see from this photo, some of the moths are huge, but there are also micromoths that are hard to see without a hand lens. I focused on photographing the larger ones this time, but maybe next time I’ll be calmed down enough to try the smaller ones. When I walked up to the first mothing sheet on Friday night, I was blown away by the beauty and variety of insects that had gathered there. I hope I can convey some of that excitement to you by sharing a few photos.

The sizes of these moths range from about 6 inches (wingspan) for the big silk moths, down to less than a tenth of an inch for the micromoths. I’d say most of the moths I photographed fall in the range of about 1-3″ wingspans.

So here’s how Mothapalooza works:

Regal moth w sig
Regal moth, another big one (Citheronia regalis)
Regal moth face view w sig
Face view of a Regal moth

Each evening the organizers set up lights and sheets around the lodge area, and we could go visit the sheets at our leisure, walking through the night with flashlights to get from one station to the next. I joked that I felt like I was going trick-or-treating as we walked through the cabin area in the dark, visiting the moth sheets of other people to see what they’d attracted. They also had a half dozen remote locations set up, and they offered a shuttle service to take us to those. Mothing was scheduled from 10 pm to 2 am each night, but I know quite a few people who stayed up much later than 2:00. I learned that the moths tend to come to the lights at different times, so there are apparently some that you won’t see unless you’re willing to check the lights all through the night. I barely made it until 1:00 the first night and 2:00 the second night, despite being a night owl in my normal life. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could sleep until noon the next day, but there’s so much cool wildlife to see down there that we all felt we should be awake and exploring for as many hours as possible. (Moths by night, dragonflies and butterflies by day!)

Beautiful Wood-nymph moth - Eudryas grata w sig
Beautiful Wood-nymph — yes, beautiful is in its name!
Kim photographing moths- by angie (2)
That’s me trying to get the moth face shots I love so much (Thanks to Angie Cole for this shot.)

Kim with polyphemus moth on shoe by angie cole with caption

Luna moth face shot w sig Kim Clair Smith
Face view of a Luna moth — those thick bipectinate antennae are characteristic of male moths

A couple years ago I got my first look at the spectacular caterpillar of the Pandorus Sphinx (Eumorpha pandorus), and this weekend I saw the adult form of the same animal. First the caterpillar:

Pandorus Sphinx Moth - Eumorpha pandorus - caterpillar w sig

And then the adult moth:

Pandorus sphinx - Eumorpha pandorus w sig.jpg

Is that not a marvelous creature?! The host plants for the caterpillar are grape and Virginia creeper, and when my friend and I found the caterpillar, it was indeed feeding on grape leaves. I was so enchanted by that caterpillar that I can’t resist scanning every grape leaf I pass on my walks, just in case I can find another one. And this moth is quite substantial, so when one of them crashes into your head, you definitely notice it.

I’m going to put a lot more photos on my blog’s Facebook page instead of posting them all here. So if you’re on Facebook, you can “Like” and “Follow” my page to see more cool photos than you can see here. (Here’s the link.)

I’m so glad I had this exciting experience! I got a change of scenery, met new friends, learned more about the natural world, and was inspired to share it with you here. I hope this might motivate some of you to hang a sheet outside and point a light at it and see what shows up. You just never know what surprises are out there in your own backyard!

Here’s a brief video to show what it’s like at a mothing station:

I took a couple extra days after Mothapalooza to drive around the southern counties of Ohio looking for dragonflies, so I’m still trying to get rested and get myself back on a normal schedule. I’ll have some fun dragon stories and photos to share next time, so I hope you’ll come back. 🙂

Two-Fer!

Dragon- and damselflies don’t often perch on photogenic flower heads, so when I found this one yesterday I was pleased. Of course it’s not a flower, but close enough.  This is a female emerald spreadwing damselfly (Lestes dryas), clutching the seed capsule on a stem of seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia). I’m calling it a two-fer because it’s an ode on a native plant, two awesome things for the price of one!

Another emerald spreadwing female - on seedbox native plant w sig

I discovered seedbox last fall while helping to collect seeds for my Wild Ones chapter, and instantly fell in love with its square seed capsules. They’re filled with tiny little seeds that rattle when shaken. Each seed capsule has a hole in the top, presumably so the seeds can fall out when the plant is blown by the wind or otherwise jostled. This plant has lovely yellow blooms in the summer, but they aren’t nearly as interesting as these little brown boxes, if you ask me. 🙂

Seedbox square seed capsules - native plant - w sig

 

Falling in Love…with Beetles

Calligrapha bidenticola - Bicolored Leaf Beetle w sig
Bicolored leaf beetle (Calligrapha bidenticola)

I might be in the early stages of a love affair…with beetles. A sort of beetle-mania, so to speak. I was aware that there are more species of beetles than plants on our planet, but hadn’t paid any special attention to this group other than occasionally admiring a new one I discovered. But after a couple recent encounters, I’m finding myself growing interested in further study of this very cool group of insects. And since dragonfly season is taking forever to get here, I might as well use this time to get better acquainted with the insects that are already active.

Beetles are in the order Coleoptera, which comes from the Greek words koleos which means sheath (or shield), and ptera which means wings. As this name indicates, they have a hardened pair of forewings called elytra that protect the softer hindwings below.

You may have noticed the common beetle flight style while watching ladybugs; the elytra are lifted up to allow the softer wings below to open. It makes them appear to be somehow handicapped, as if they can’t manage to get those cumbersome appendages out of the way.

It seems that wouldn’t be the most efficient way to fly, but they seem to do just fine. (In fact, I read a study that found that the elytra do provide extra lift in flight, but they reduce aerodynamic efficiency.)

A few days ago I met the pigweed flea beetle; actually I met quite a few of them. I was enjoying a leisurely walk on a quiet trail in one of the less-traveled areas of Magee Marsh Wildlife Area. A half mile from my spot there were throngs of birders jostling for views of a Connecticut warbler, but I was in blissful peace, crouched on the ground watching beetles go about their business.

Pigweed flea beetle collage w sig
Pigweed flea beetle (Disonycha glabrata)

This particular one taught me something interesting. I watched him (her?) repeatedly open and close the elytra before finally achieving liftoff. I wonder about the purpose of the opening and closing of the elytra so many times; it could be part of a mating display or serve some other function.

Bumble Flower Beetle - Euphoria inda w sig
Bumble flower beetle (Euphoria inda)

Just a few days after being enchanted with the pigweed flea beetle’s display, I’ve met another beetle who taught me more cool stuff. This is the bumble flower beetle (Euphoria inda). Whereas the pigweed flea beetle was about a quarter inch long, this one was much bigger, more than a half inch long. (A quarter inch is significant in the insect world!)

As I was researching this species, I came across an article that claims this one is unique among beetles because he doesn’t raise the elytra when he flies. I haven’t seen reference to this claim to fame anywhere else, but if it’s true, it’s just one more reason to enjoy meeting this magnificent furry creature.

And before you scroll too far, go back and check out those awesome lamellate antennae! Beetles have some of the most interesting antennae I’ve yet come across in my insect studies. I often remember this guy, the big blister beetle I found on my front sidewalk a couple years ago. He’s got those impressive segmented (moniliform) and weirdly-kinked antennae. And his elytra are partially wrapped around his abdomen, in contrast to those of the species above.

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

Beetles come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and I look forward to a summer of meeting many more of them and learning more about their fascinating lives!

(Above, clockwise from left: Spotted cucumber beetle, banded longhorn beetle, dogbane leaf beetle)

Spring Ephemerals

I spent last Saturday in Dayton, Ohio, attending a spring wildflower symposium. After the day’s events concluded, I spent a couple hours photographing wildflowers in the area. Dayton is about 150 miles south of Toledo, and so things bloom earlier down there. It’s always so hard to wait for things to bloom up here when I start seeing pictures from more southern parts of the state. But down there I got my first looks at this year’s Virginia bluebells and Dutchman’s breeches, and that got me excited about getting out to see what might be blooming up here in the northern part of the state.

Dutchman's breeches under a magnolia tree w sig
Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)  Here’s proof that fairies hang their laundry beneath magnolia trees.

So a few days ago I drove west to Goll Woods State Nature Preserve, a remnant of the black swamp forest that once covered much of northwest Ohio. Not only does Goll Woods have oaks and cottonwoods that are 200-400 years old, but it contains a magnificent cornucopia of spring wildflowers as well.

I was disappointed at first, when I couldn’t find anything blooming in the first few minutes of my walk. But as I slowed down and looked closer, I began to find single early blooms here and there.  I figured I might not get the photos I’d hoped for, but then again, this was a good opportunity to study the leaves of the soon-to-bloom wildflowers and learn to identify them before the flowers appear.

It was easy to identify trout lilies by their fish-inspired leaf patterns:

Trout Lily at Goll Woods w sig
Trout lily (Erythronium americanum)

Last year I photographed a huge swath of trout lilies, shown here:

Trout lily collage w sig

And I had just learned about waterleaf on Saturday, so it was another easy one to identify. It looks like there’s water spattered on the leaves, doesn’t it?

Virginia waterleaf w sig
This is large-leaved waterleaf (Hydrophyllum macrophyllum) – thanks to JM for the correction

Another flower I just learned about is this one, harbinger-of-spring, also known as salt-and-pepper, for obvious reasons. It’s very tiny, only a couple inches tall.

Harbinger of spring w sig
Harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa)
Hepatica at Goll Woods w sig
Hepatica nobilis

I soon found little clumps of spring beauties and hepatica, and then a few larger clusters at the bases of trees or next to decaying logs. Hepatica is one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom, and maybe it’s able to survive the cooler temps of late winter and early spring with help from its hairy stems and leaves. I’ve sometimes found this flower by gently moving aside decaying leaf litter in March to find it tucked underneath, just waiting for an opportunity to burst forth from its winter protection and reach for the sun.

I found a small patch of bloodwort in full bloom but the bright sunlight made it hard to get a nice photo, so here’s a single alabaster bloom:

Bloodroot at Goll Woods w sig
Bloodwort (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Ephemeral - graphic for blogAll of these flowers are known as spring ephemerals, flowers that arise from the leaf litter early in spring, taking advantage of the sun before the trees get their leaves to shade them out. They bloom and then retreat back into the ground to await their next performance the following spring.

Have you noticed that we tend to celebrate things that are only around briefly? I’m thinking of the fall colors on trees, or cherry blossoms, or warblers during spring migration, and of course, spring wildflowers. And conversely, we take for granted those that are around more often. When I think of this, I’m always reminded of the time I was chatting with some birders from California who had traveled to Ohio for the spring migration. They were excitedly telling me about the cardinals they’d seen, and it renewed my appreciation for this common yet stunningly beautiful bird that lives in my backyard all year long.

And speaking of getting excited…I am geeking out over something insect-related right now.  At Goll Woods I saw my first hoverflies (aka flower flies) of the year. They were plentiful but the only species I was able to photograph was Helophilus fasciatus, the narrow-headed sunfly. Isn’t he lovely?

Narrow-headed sunfly - helophilus fasciatus - on leaves w sig
Narrow-headed sunfly (Helophilus fasciatus)

Field Guide to Flower Flies of NE N America cover imageLast fall I wrote a post about my budding obsession with these tiny but important pollinator flies that are sometimes mistaken for bees. (You can go back to that post for some background and prettier photos.)

As I was googling around to confirm my identification and refresh my memory from last year, I stumbled upon this new book. Several months ago someone told me this book was going to be published soon, but I’d totally forgotten about it. I just pre-ordered it and it’ll be here in a few short weeks, and I’ll finally have a resource to help me identify these little cuties. I’m trying hard to restrain my excitement as I write this, but I am oh so geeked right now!

P.S. You can be sure there’s going to be more talk of hoverflies here in the very near future.

Odes in Winter: Where Are They Now?

Here in northern Ohio we’ve entered a period of the year that I think of as, “Is It Time Yet?” We’ve been through the depths of a frigid winter and have been treated to some brief warmups in which all the snow melted and we could bask in the rejuvenating glow of the sun. Those late winter warm spells are the first sign we get that spring is, if not around the corner, at least on the horizon.

I always start dreaming of the not-too-far-off day in April when I’ll see my first dragonfly of the year, a day of virtual high-fives texted between my odeing buddy and myself: Me: “I saw my first Green Darner today! What did you find?” Him: “I think I saw a Springtime Darner!” Me: “Woohoo, it’s on!” (And that’s our virtual high-five.)

And so ode season will kick off and we’ll spend the summer happily sharing cool sightings and photographs. Until that day comes, I must have patience. But I can still daydream. The other day I went to a spot at Maumee Bay State Park where I photographed this flag-tailed spinyleg last July.

Flag-tailed spinyleg - MBSP (1) w sig
Flag-tailed spinyleg (Dromogomphus spoliatus)

Isn’t he spectacular?! I have such great memories of stalking him around the edges of that pond, and the excitement that bubbled up in me when he came to rest on a log very close to the water’s edge, in easy photographic range.

This is the photo I took of that pond a couple days ago:

Frozen pond at MBSP - blog
Frozen fishing pond at Maumee Bay State Park, just a stone’s throw from a frozen Lake Erie

Standing there at the edge of the frozen water, I felt like a small child waiting outside a toy store, asking her mom, “Is it open yet? Huh, mom? When will it open?!”  Because I know that there are larvae of dragonflies and damselflies beneath that frozen water right now, just waiting for the temperatures to rise.

darner exuviae w sig KCS blog
Empty exuvia of a dragonfly, possibly one of the darners

Some species of dragonflies migrate to warmer climates (more about that below), but most of the adults die before winter each year. If they’ve been successful in breeding, they’ve left behind larvae who will live under water for varying amounts of time, depending on species. Some of them live under water for years. And each spring, some generations will be ready to emerge from the water and shed their exuviae to become the beautiful winged adults that are the source of so much of my summertime entertainment.

If you pay attention around any fresh water source, you can often find many of these empty exoskeletons, or exuviae, attached to vegetation. There’s always a hole on the top where the adult dragonfly broke through and emerged into a whole new world. That’s just one more aspect of their lives that I find so fascinating; they live part of their lives under water and then another part as incredible speeding winged insects who can maneuver like helicopters.

Dragonfly exuviae w sig KCS blog
Exuvia of unknown dragonfly species

Here’s another exuvia I found last summer. I can’t tell which species this one was, because I should have taken a photo from the side as well as from the top. I’m just learning to identify the exuviae, using tools like this one from the National Park Service.

I mentioned that some species of dragonflies migrate to warmer climates. A study was published late last year that indicates that the common green darner (Anax junius) has a migration very similar to that of the monarch butterfly. Their migration involves three separate generations of adult insects, moving north and south at various times. This article describes the study and has some neat diagrams to illustrate it. (Oh, I should mention that if you have any interest in contributing your sightings in this last year of the Ohio Dragonfly Survey, you can click here for details.)

According to that article, there are some common green darners emerging from waters in the southern parts of North America right now, and they’ll soon be on their way to Ohio where my camera and I will be waiting impatiently for their arrival.  I think I can make it.  In the meantime, I’ve got a very exciting mystery trip coming up in less than two weeks, so that will provide a much-needed distraction as I await the return of the odonata to Ohio. I can’t wait to share this trip with you!

Black-shouldered spinyleg - really cool pic w sig
Black-shouldered spinyleg (Dromogomphus spinosus)

Brain Food or Useless Fruit?

osage orange tree and fruits on ground w sigA few weeks ago I was counting birds in rural Marion County in central Ohio. My count partner Jim and I were participating in one of the many Audubon Christmas Bird Counts that take place all across the country each December.

We’d stopped at a small park to walk a trail around a little lake, where we found some downy woodpeckers and American tree sparrows, but not much else. As we emerged from the woods, we came upon this fascinating osage orange tree (Maclura pomifera). The ground beneath the tree was littered with dozens of spectacular, grapefruit-sized fruits. I couldn’t resist a brief stop to examine them more closely.

If you’ve never seen one of these strange fruits before, your first impression is likely to be that it looks oddly like a brain.

osage orange fruits close crop w sig
When fresh, the fruits are bright green. These were obviously past their prime, and many were rotting. Some had lovely reddish coloring, and a few had been tasted by unknown critters, possibly squirrel or deer. I’m told they aren’t very palatable, and I’m not willing to taste one to find out.

osage orange fruits w sig

I examined one of the fruits that was split open, and found that it has sections that remind me of broccoli or pineapple.

As we talked about this tree, I learned the concept of anachronistic plants. They’re still here, long after the demise of any animals that would have been large enough to forage on them. So they apparently don’t serve much purpose any longer, at least for larger animals. I would imagine there are insects that feed on this tree and birds that nest in it, although Ohio is not its natural range. It occurs naturally in Texas, but here in Ohio it’s considered an alien species. It was brought here by early settlers who had found that the thorny osage orange could be used as an effective livestock barrier when planted in thick hedges (thus the alternate name of hedge apple).

Despite very little scientific evidence, many people continue to believe that osage oranges can be used to repel insects or spiders around the home.  I came upon this humorous post on a message board while researching for this article:

“I used whole hedge apples in my house to run out spiders, and was I ever wrong in doing it! They drew gnats, my house was full of them! And then they rotted. Gross! I got rid of them, got rid of the gnats, and learned a lesson.”

I guess the lesson she learned was to keep the hedge apples outside of the house. 🙂
osage orange fruits v2 w sig

Finding the Joy, Redux

I’ve written here before about how birds helped me discover a love and appreciation for the natural world rather late in life. They gave me years of enjoyment and also led me to my current passions for native plants, dragonflies, and other insects.

That’s why my life was turned upside down when, about two and a half years ago, I had a very painful experience related to the birding community. It had such a negative impact on me that I soon found myself turning down invitations to go birding with friends, just to avoid reminders of what had happened. I decided to get some distance from birding, at least in my part of Ohio.

robin eating sumac fruits w sig
American robin feeding on fruits of staghorn sumac

I had convinced myself that I just didn’t care about birds anymore.  Deep inside I knew that was a rationalization to allow me to keep my distance from the pain. But lately, finally, I feel myself wanting to acknowledge that I still love watching birds.

I’ve skipped all of the local Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) in the Toledo area this year, but I was invited to do two counts in other parts of Ohio recently, and eagerly accepted. Having now done those counts, I’m finding myself rediscovering what made me love birds in the first place. Not only are they fascinating animals, but birds are with us all the time, everywhere. Even in the depths of a midwestern winter, when it seems everything else is silent, dead, or dying, birds are here.

I can go virtually anywhere and find birds to watch, while the rest of the world scurries past, oblivious to these engaging little creatures living among them. That realization always makes me a bit sad for those muggles, but also gives me a bit of a thrill as I realize I’ve got a secret that’s right in front of them, if only their eyes would focus on it.

mockingbird on green gate w sig
Northern mockingbird keeping an eye on us

I did both of the recent CBCs with naturalist Jim McCormac, who writes a fantastic blog right here.  (I encourage you to visit his blog and poke around; your life will be richer for doing so.)  We did the Killdeer Plains CBC last weekend, and the Hocking Hills CBC this weekend.  Both were exhausting days, but full of great birds and conversations.

Because I’ve pulled back from birding recently, my limited skills were in desperate need of a tune-up. I’ve long known that the best way to improve my skills is to tag along with people who are more skilled than I, and birding with Jim is perfect for that because of his lifetime of experience with birds. To someone like me, he seems to have a magical sixth sense about where to find the birds. When I bird alone, I can fool myself into thinking I’m doing pretty well, and get a false sense of confidence. But birding with someone as experienced as Jim makes me realize just how many birds I’ve been missing.

mockingbird on branch of multiflora rose w sig
Northern mockingbird checking up on us again

When I expressed my frustration at not being able to pick out many of the calls he was hearing, he reminded me of the decades of birdwatching that gave him those skills. I get that, and I appreciated his encouragement about it. Having started birding so late in life, it’s doubtful that I can ever hope to develop those great birding-by-ear skills. But I don’t want to give up trying to improve.

On the Hocking Hills count yesterday, we spent some quality time with a northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) who was feeding on a bountiful supply of rose hips on a multiflora rose shrub along a rural road. This type of birding is most rewarding to me, when I get to take time to watch an individual bird’s behavior. We were very quiet and respectful of this bird’s space, and just observed how he interacted with other birds. He was zealously guarding “his” rose hips from a good-sized flock of eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) in an adjacent field. At one point when he was off chasing bluebirds, I saw a song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) slip inside the rose shrub, momentarily undetected. Sly bird.

mockingbird eating rosehips from multiflora rose w sig
Northern mockingbird feeding on rose hips of the invasive multiflora rose

The mockingbird occasionally popped out to make sure we were keeping our distance, but continued feeding calmly on rose hips between his bluebird patrols. At one point a red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) dropped down through the branches of a maple tree in an unsuccessful attempt to nab one of the bluebirds. He then quickly recovered and flew directly toward us, barely 15 feet over our heads. He briefly landed on a power pole beside the car, and then soared off across the fields. Sure wish I’d been quick enough on the shutter button to get that shot.

I’m grateful to have rediscovered a part of my life that had been put on the back-burner for too long. I’m not going to go so far as to say “New Year, New Me,” but I am determined to reclaim the parts of life that make it richer and more meaningful for me. Life is too short to let bad memories steal your chances of making new ones.

#FindingTheJoy

Nope, That’s Not a Bee

Eastern calligrapher fly - toxomerus geminatus - for blog
Eastern calligrapher fly (Toxomerus geminatus)

When I first started photographing insects, I noticed — but didn’t really look at — lots of little “bees.” I noted their brown and yellow abdomens and quickly dismissed them as uninteresting. But once I actually photographed one of them and looked at it, I was enchanted by the pretty patterns I saw, and wanted to study them further. As an example, notice the intricate designs on the one in that first photo above.

I learned that they aren’t bees at all; they’re a family of insects known as hover flies or flower flies. Many of them resemble not only bees, but wasps as well. It’s believed that this mimicry aids their survival by making potential predators think twice before attacking them. A simple way to distinguish flies from bees or wasps is the number of wings; flies only have two wings, whereas bees and wasps have four.

My familiarity with taxonomic structures is mostly limited to my high school memories of reciting “Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.” I’m doing the best I can to make sure I give accurate information about scientific classifications here, but keep in mind that I’m a real amateur in insect identification. I write these articles to educate myself as much as to entertain and educate my readers. 🙂 And, if you read something here that’s wrong, I’d really appreciate hearing from you so I can correct it.

taxonomic hierarchy graphic

So, within the Insecta class, there are further subdivisions called orders. For example, the order Odonata contains my beloved dragonflies and damselflies. The order Hymenoptera contains bees, ants, and wasps. These hover flies are in the order Diptera. And within that order, they’re in the family Syrphidae (and are thus also known as syrphid flies).

So whether you call them hover flies, flower flies, or syrphid flies, you should know that they are valuable pollinators in the garden.

Prairie gentian with American Hoverfly for blog
Hoverfly on Prairie Gentian (Gentiana puberulenta)

And if you have aphid problems, you’ll be happy to find out that the larvae of syrphid flies are little wormlike creatures that are ravenous consumers of aphids. If you see these lovely little flies in your yard, keep your fingers crossed that they like it enough to stick around and lay their eggs there. You can make it easier for them by not removing leaves from your garden in the fall because that’s where they spend the winter.

These flies really seem to love the ubiquitous asters that are blooming in the early fall, and that makes it easier for me to find and photograph them. I just walk up to a group of asters and wait until they show up. This is one of my favorite recent photos of a syrphid fly on asters:

Oblique Stripetail - Allograpta obliqua on aster
Oblique stripetail (Allograpta obliqua) on asters

Interestingly, hover flies share some extraordinary capabilities with dragonflies: they can hover, and fly forward, backward, sideways, up, and down.  Their flight abilities make them fascinating to watch; I can easily lose track of time when I’m focused on watching them zipping around a patch of flowers, feeding on the nutritious nectar and pollen.

Narrow-headed sunfly - Helophilus fasciatus w sig
Narrow-headed sunfly (Helophilus fasciatus)
Chrysotoxum sp of hover fly v2
This one is in the genus Chrysotoxum, but I don’t know which species

I plan to continue my study of these syrphid flies, and will hope to be able to write more about them in a future post.  If you get a chance, pull up a chair beside a group of asters or goldenrod soon and see if you can catch a glimpse of any of these charming flower visitors.

There’s a little bonus for you below, but I just want to share one more photo.  One day I was watching this Chinese mantis as it preyed upon bees from its perch on top of a cushion of goldenrod. In this photo, the mantis is eating a honeybee while a syrphid fly feeds only a couple inches from its head, seemingly unconcerned about the monster lurking beside him. Perhaps he realized the mantis was occupied and was no immediate danger to him.

Syrphid fly watches as Chinese mantis eats honeybee

Bonus Deep Dive Content: Okay, if you’re interested in watching a syrphid fly larva eat an aphid, you can spend 25 minutes watching this amazing video I found on YouTube by someone called “Insect Man.” I confess I fast-forwarded through some of it, but it’s way cool.