Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug.
Mark Knopfler, The Bug Song
Dragonfly season is fast coming to a close, and this is always a melancholy time of year for me. I get so much pleasure from going out to watch them (and other insects) and it’s hard to let go of that every fall. But then again, if they were here all year long I might not appreciate them as much. It helps if I think about it in the way I think about rainbows: we’d take them for granted if they were permanent fixtures in the sky, but we value them because they’re so brief and infrequent.
This summer has been sort of miserable — either raining endlessly or so hot I could barely tolerate it. And the mosquitoes were ravenous! I spent much less time in the field this summer, and I sure hope I’ll be back to my normal level of nature explorations next year. But the other day we got one of our first beautiful fall days, with a crystal blue October sky (in September!) and refreshingly cool north winds. It’s been wonderful to turn the air conditioner off and open all the windows in the house to get some fresh air in here.
So on this gorgeous day I took advantage of the comfortable temperatures to get out for one of my last dragonfly surveys of the season. As I started out I was feeling sort of dejected because there was hardly anything flying, dragonfly or otherwise. My spirits lifted a bit when I saw a tiny gnat ogre, our smallest robber fly at about 1/4″ long. There are three possible Holcocephala species in Ohio, and they’re not easy to identify. But they’re one of my favorites and I’ve seen lots of them at Wiregrass Lake this year, although they’ve gotten scarce in the past few weeks. I took some quick photos of the tiny predator on his hunting perch and moved on to resume my dragonfly count.
A few minutes later I was taking photos of a female spreadwing damselfly, and getting much happier because spreadwings are rare at this location, and this was the first one I’d seen here all summer. This is most likely a Slender Spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis).
Spreadwings are so-named because of the way they hold their wings outspread, in contrast to other damselflies, who hold their wings folded together. I think they look like they’re wearing ballerina tutus, and that makes me smile.
My spirits soared yet again when the damselfly grabbed a gnat ogre right in front of me! It happened so fast that I didn’t realize what she’d caught until I enlarged the pics on the back of my camera. A case of predator becoming prey, or as Mark Knopfler put it, “Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug!”
I sat on the ground and watched her for ten minutes as she enjoyed her meal. She started with the head, then ate the thorax, dropping the wings on the ground. Here’s a short video so you can see some of the action. There’s some wind noise but you might be able to hear crunching sounds as she munches on her lunch. (I don’t think the video needs a “gross” warning, and if you haven’t clicked away already, you’ll be fine!)
I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. Predatory insects are fascinating because you just never know what you might get to see. And in this case, when one predator catches another one, it’s very dramatic. (If you want to see a series of dramatic photos I took of another insect interaction, check out “The Circle of Life, Insect Edition.)
As I left the damselfly to finish her meal, I snapped a photo of the scene. The circle indicates where she was, in the vegetation alongside Wiregrass Lake. If you weren’t tuned in to these insects, you could easily walk past them and not have a clue about the life-and-death drama that was playing out at your feet!
That’s one of the things I love about being out there paying close attention to insects. It’s like I’m living in a fascinating secret world that nobody else is noticing. And yet I know there’s still so much out there that I’m missing, and that’s what keeps me going out again and again.
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This is a story of irony, hypocrisy, and maybe hilarity. You be the judge.
I spent last week in the picturesque Finger Lakes region of New York, indulging in a personal writing retreat. I’d chosen an isolated place where I would have privacy and quiet, planning to spend most days writing and walking in the woods.
I’m always a bit anxious before I arrive at a new vacation rental, not knowing if it’s going to live up to my hopes and expectations. But I found the place easily and my car managed to make it up the steep gravel driveway. Check. The cabin was cozy and had everything I needed. Check. So far so good.
I enjoyed reading the magnetic poetry left behind by previous guests.
After a quick exploration of the cabin, I walked up through the woods to the top of the hill to see the wind turbines. I’d been concerned about being so close to these monstrosities, but after I saw them I felt okay about it. And I couldn’t see them from the cabin, so they didn’t bother me too much. Although when I was outside I could hear a steady hum and occasional clicking sounds from them, so I know I could never live near one of those things. My sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) would cause me to fixate on the noise and it would make me crazy.
After I settled in, I got plenty of writing done and enjoyed taking breaks to photograph insects in the nearby woods and meadows. As to be expected, the cabin also had its share of insects and spiders inside. I’m used to seeing the occasional spider or beetle in my own house, and I always enjoy trying to identify them before releasing them outdoors or just letting them go about their business. A rustic cabin in the woods is a whole different experience though. I knew it would be a challenge for me to live up to my “do no harm” policy toward the larger numbers of six- and eight-legged critters.
I didn’t mind the numerous moths who found their way indoors, as they mostly ended up on lamp shades or in the window screens, and I know they pose no threat to me anyway. But on my last night there, I was sitting in bed reading when a large wolf spider ran across the sheet beside me and scared the bejeebers out of me. I jumped out of bed so fast I almost hit my head on the loft ceiling. I shook out all the bedding and shivered as I wondered where the heck it had gone. After a minute or so, I reluctantly got back in bed and picked up my book. Two minutes later I felt something on my head and reached up to find another spider in my hair. Out of bed again…not happy at all at this point.
I know, I know. I constantly write about how we shouldn’t fear insects and spiders, and we should leave them alone to live their lives if they aren’t hurting us. But as tolerant as I want to be, if a spider startles me by running across my bed or my head, that’s where I draw the line! I’m not saying I’d purposely kill a spider for this egregious violation of my personal space, but I take no responsibility for any accidental injuries they might sustain from being flung across the room when I panic.
At the end of my week, I’d had several sleepless nights in the cabin and was looking forward to returning home and getting caught up on my sleep. (Don’t judge me, but I was scared being alone in the woods and couldn’t sleep well. And there were two days of steady pouring rain and wind that made me worry about getting down off of that hill alive….) My drive home should have taken six hours, but it ended up being closer to eight because of weather-related detours and multiple stops for caffeine. The area I’d been staying in was impacted by tropical storm Fred, and on the day of my departure there was a state of emergency due to flooding in local communities. Travel was prohibited along the route I’d planned to take, so I changed my route to avoid the flooded areas.
I finally arrived home in the evening and greeted my happy cats, who then “helped” me unload my luggage. My plan was to quickly throw all the dirty laundry in the washer, get a quick shower, and fall into bed.
But as I walked into my kitchen, I couldn’t believe my eyes: the windows were covered with flies! There had to be a couple hundred of them — it was like a horror movie. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I hope I never do again.
I texted my friend who had been in the house that morning to take care of my cats. “Um, did you see any flies in my kitchen today?” “Yeah, there were four or five and I killed them.” Based on that information, I figured they had all emerged that afternoon from…someplace…in the house. But there was no rotting food or any obvious source, so I still don’t know where they came from. I suppose a fly could have laid eggs on a dead mouse in the walls or the attic. Gross. (I swear, I don’t live in a filthy house!)
I opened the windows and swatted about 80% of them out within the first half hour. That left me to deal with a few dozen of them. As I started slamming them against the windows, I admit I got great satisfaction in watching each lifeless body drop to the windowsill or floor. I’ve spent many happy hours watching other types of flies, but these nasty ones are a different story. If they’re the common greenbottle flies, as I suspect, they can lay up to 200 eggs per clutch, so it was important to get rid of them before they were able to lay more eggs.
As I was killing them (and saying “sorry” to each one), I realized the hilarious irony of how I’d been looking forward to coming home to get away from the excessive numbers of insects and spiders in the cabin, only to walk into my own personal Hitchcock movie. I also wondered why my two lazy cats weren’t showing the slightest interest in helping me catch the flies. Useless felines.
Am I a hypocrite? Maybe. It’s so easy to tell people to respect insects, but I don’t deny that there are definitely some exceptions to that. I still believe we shouldn’t just reflexively kill any insect we see — without good reason. But I decided that 200 flies in my kitchen was a good reason to use any means necessary to get them out.
The next day I found a couple dozen more, and on the third day just two or three. I hope they’re gone now. But something really cool happened on the third day. I was sitting in my sunroom talking to my parents on the phone. I saw a lone straggler fly on the window. I also saw a little jumping spider on the wall. I’d been watching that jumping spider for a couple days, enjoying having him in there. (You’ll remember me writing about the cuteness of jumping spiders before.)
Anyway, it happened so fast I couldn’t believe it., but the spider ran over and grabbed the fly. The spider was no bigger than the fly, and yet he caught it easily. My parents laughed as I interrupted our conversation so I could use my phone camera to try to get photos of the capture. That didn’t work because the spider and fly were backlit by the bright outside light. So after I ended the phone call, I got my real camera and tried to get better pictures as the spider continued to dine on its bounty. I went outside to tape a piece of green construction paper behind them, then went back inside and got some decent photos.
I’m grateful to the spider and I say “good riddance” to the fly. Hosting this jumping spider in my house makes me feel somewhat redeemed for my unwarranted fears of the spiders in the cabin. I’m telling you all of this so you’ll understand that (most) spiders are awesome and you should be happy to have them in your house (unless they’re venomous, of course).
In the end, I suppose I understand and accept my hypocrisy as part of being a human in a complicated world. I’m doing my best to help other people get over their fear of insects by teaching about them here, but it’s clear I still have some work to do on my own fears. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, so fire away in the comments!
One day as I was watching damselflies on the rocks along the Maumee River, I discovered I wasn’t the only one watching them. I first saw the pretty little water snake as his head popped up in front of me, and it looked like he was eyeing the powdered dancer on the rocks. (I wondered if dancer-on-the-rocks was a tasty snake delicacy.) Just as I got excited at the possibility of seeing a surprising predator/prey interaction, the damsel flew and the snake dropped down into the water.
I continued watching more damselflies a few feet away, where the water was pouring over some rocks. I could see the snake under the water a couple times, and then he emerged on a ledge just below where the American rubyspots and powdered dancers were perched. Again I got excited. I didn’t think he’d be able to grab one of them, but wondered if he’d try.
Suddenly I saw the snake had clearly grabbed somebody, and I started shooting pictures. It turned out to be a small fish, and I realized that he was probably on the ledge waiting for fish to be washed over the top, right into his mouth. What an excellent hunting strategy for a snake!
I was pleased that he hadn’t caught one of the damselflies, but I have to admit I would have loved to see him try!
After my walk in the woods today, I stopped to admire the flower garden at my local metropark. It’s a beautiful garden of both natives and non-natives, and I was checking to see if there were any interesting insects hanging out there. My passion for native plants has turned me into a total bug geek, and I can’t resist looking beyond the simple beauty of the flowers to find the other hidden lives within their parts.
Since I’d been on a fitness walk, I only had my cell phone with me and so I started trying to take photos with it. But it’s terrible at macro shots. And so when I saw something new, I ran to the car for my real camera so I could document my cool discovery.
This is an ambush bug, a member of the assassin bug family. I believe this one is a jagged ambush bug (genus Phymata). This is the first ambush bug I’ve ever photographed, so I was very excited to discover him hiding in plain sight on top of a Black-eyed Susan flowerhead. As the name implies, they hunt by sitting in wait for a hapless victim to wander within reach of their lethal grasp.
After photographing his dorsal side, I slowly moved around to get a lateral view. Often when I’m shooting tiny subjects like this, I can’t fully see the details until I zoom in on the LCD screen on the back of the camera. And as I did that, I had to restrain myself from giggling out loud when I saw this adorable face:
I know, it might be adorable to me, but I wouldn’t want to be a small beetle trundling around those petals, I’ll tell you that. I mean, just look at those forelegs — they give you an indication of the reach he’s capable of. And little did I know then, but I was about to see one of these guys in action. Well, sort of.
I moved along, photographing other insects, and then came upon another great piece to the story of the jagged ambush bug. I found this second one with a recently-acquired victim! All I can tell is that it’s some kind of bee. As I took my photos, the bee seemed to still be moving slightly, so that’s why I figured I’d just missed the grab.
If you look closely at that last picture, you can see the bug’s proboscis stabbed into the bee’s abdomen. After he grabs his prey with those powerful legs, he injects poison that liquefies its insides. The insides are then sucked out through a rostrum, a straw-like structure inside the proboscis. Is that not cool or what?!
Aren’t we lucky these things are so small? With its powerful pincer legs, an ambush bug can easily take an insect up to ten times its size. Imagine a dog-sized ambush bug lurking in the shrubbery as you take your evening stroll…yikes!
Okay, that was a little bit unnerving, wasn’t it? Here’s a nice calming photo of the trail in the woods…take a deep breath…and forget all about ambush bugs. For now, at least. 😉
Dragonflies are fierce predators of other insects, seemingly invincible as they zip around ponds and meadows at warp speed. But they themselves fall prey to birds and even other dragonflies, in the dog-eat-dog (dragon-eat-dragon?) insect world.
One predator you might not expect to feast on something as fast as a dragonfly might be a spider. But the spider’s deathly weapon — the web — can definitely ruin a dragonfly’s day.
My friends Hal and Ginny woke up one morning on their recent vacation to find a young Calico Pennant ensnared in the sticky strands of a web outside their cabin in northern Michigan. They immediately jumped into action to try to free the little guy. Hal wrote an account of their efforts for our Wild Ones Oak Openings Region newsletter (he’s our chapter President), and he has given me permission to reprint an excerpt of his article for you. So here it is:
During the night a spider had constructed a web of fascinating geometry. Normally the sparkling dew-laden strands would have caught my attention first. But, not this time! A large dragonfly was solidly entangled in the sticky threads. It must have been there a long time as it had given up and appeared to have gone to dragonfly heaven. I was surprised the web’s eight-legged architect hadn’t already wrapped this prize up for a later feast.
Not seeing the spider, I decided to get a better look at the prey. I pushed my finger to move the colorful insect and SURPRISE! Two of its legs not entangled wiggled and grasped my forefinger. It was alive. Now what do I do? I felt bad for this fascinating creature. But I was witnessing the natural food web in action, up close and personal.
I again looked for the arachnid whose livelihood I was messing with. Didn’t see it. So, I pulled a little and the dragonfly clutched more strongly. It tried flapping its wings to escape but the threads held. I pulled a little more and one of the wings came free of the web. The dragonfly held tighter on to me. Pulling some more, two more wings came free. Another easy tug freed the final wing, but four legs were still tangled up. Putting my fingers behind its wings prevented them from being recaptured while I pulled at the remaining silk chained to the legs.
Now, completely free from the web, the dragonfly sat on the deck railing. It tried again to fly but couldn’t. I saw a piece of silk holding the right fore and hind wings together. By now, Ginny had heard me. She brought some flat toothpicks and took pictures. There was enough space between the wings for me to insert the toothpick and gently extract the silk.
Now testing its freed wings, the dragon rose into the air a little, but quickly landed back on the railing. Noticing a gob of web residue holding several of the legs together, some more toothpick work was in order. Using two toothpicks I was able to separate most of the constraint. The insect rose a few inches above the wooden railing. Again, it quickly returned but this time to my finger. This time it took a little while to find one last vestige of the spider’s handywork wrapped around the right front leg. The silk didn’t let go easily. But finally, it did release.
That little creature must have been exhausted from its brush with death. Slowly it climbed farther up on my finger and rested for a few moments. As we looked at each other, I wondered how I appeared to it. Ever so slowly it rose vertically into the air, hovered for a second, flew a couple of feet to my left, turned 180 degrees, and flew to the right, then returned to hover in front of me for what seemed like a breathtaking minute. Then it was gone.
Knowing what kind people Hal and Ginny are, I’m not the least bit surprised that they wanted to help this beautiful creature. I’m very impressed with how they delicately disentangled it and gave it a chance to live out its life. Thanks Hal and Ginny, for sharing this story with all of us. I bet that Calico Pennant has already found a girlfriend and told her how you saved him so just he could make babies with her!
I’ve got an interesting series of photos to show you today, sort of a follow up to my recent post titled The Hunter and the Hunted. The other day I glanced out the kitchen window and saw a red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) frozen in place on the side of the suet cylinder. In the classic nuthatch pose, facing downward, he wasn’t moving a single muscle.
That simple sign told me there was a winged predator in the yard; sure enough, it only took a few seconds to find a mature Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) perched in the big silver maple tree. The hawk’s view of the nuthatch was probably blocked because he was on the back side of the suet. But the little guy wasn’t taking any chances, and continued to “make like a statue” even after the hawk flew across the yard to perch on the fence.
Even from his new location, the hawk couldn’t see the nuthatch. You may notice that this isn’t the same immature hawk that was here the other day. This one is an adult, as indicated by his red eyes and more solidly-colored breast plumage.
After about 45 seconds on the fence, the hawk dropped down behind the large cypress shrub, and the nuthatch still didn’t move. As I was enjoying the drama of this scene, I was also glad to have a nuthatch who wasn’t moving so I might have a chance to get better photos of him, though I was still hampered by the double-paned window.
The hawk remained behind the cypress for at least 15 minutes. I’ve seen several hawks drop down behind there and stay for a good amount of time, possibly feasting on the birds who like to shelter inside. When the snow melts a bit, I’ll have to check to see if there are piles of house sparrow feathers back there.
But anyway, when the hawk had been out of sight for about four minutes, the nuthatch began to move verrrry slowly. First he turned around and waited for a couple more minutes.
He looked to the left.
Then he looked to the right.
Continuing to be exceedingly cautious, he slowly creeped up and peeked up over the top of the suet.
Finally he felt the coast was clear, and took the opportunity to fly to the relative safety of the big cedar tree.
I don’t know if the Coop would have even bothered with a meal as tiny as a red-breasted nuthatch, but I don’t blame the little one for putting on his cloak of invisibility for a few minutes, just in case.
There’s been a young Cooper’s hawk frequenting my yard recently. I see this species in my neighborhood throughout the year, but their visits become more frequent in the winter when I have the bird feeders out.
An active bird feeder is like an all-you-can-eat buffet for a Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii). The accipiters are experts at the fast and precise tactical maneuvers needed to zip in and out of trees and other backyard vegetation where tasty songbirds hide.
When I photographed this one the other day, he had a fresh blood spot on his belly indicating a recent meal. Nevertheless, he was still terrorizing the innumerable house sparrows.
Many bird lovers are dismayed to see a hawk taking birds from their yards, and I get it. Nobody likes to see an animal die right before their eyes. And the first few times I witnessed this behavior it upset me too. But having spent so much time with birds over the years, I’ve made my peace with it. Because a hawk needs to eat just like any other bird does, so I can’t begrudge them taking advantage of an easy meal.
Raptors are fascinating birds to study, especially when you get a chance to see them hunting and feeding. I’m excited to be a new volunteer for a raptor monitoring project with Metroparks Toledo this spring, helping to keep track of hawks and owls throughout the nesting season. I’ll go to an orientation meeting next month, and then be assigned a route that I’ll walk once every two weeks to document any raptor nesting activity.
The photo above shows an adult Cooper’s hawk in my yard last winter. If you compare the hawk in the first picture above, you’ll notice that the younger hawk has yellow eyes rather than the reddish eyes of the adult. The head of the mature bird is much darker, and their breast feather patterns are different as well.
As for the house sparrows that are often the prey of my backyard hawks, I’m ambivalent about them, as are many birders. You see, these birds are not native to North America; they were originally found in Eurasia, North Africa, and the Middle East. The first 8 pairs of them were released in New York City in the mid-19th century, followed soon after with other releases. Immigrants to this country wanted to establish populations of the birds they were familiar with from their home countries, but they had no way of knowing the problems that would be caused by this seemingly harmless introduction.
They quickly established themselves throughout most of North America, often displacing native bird species by their aggressive nesting behaviors. They begin nesting early in the season, often before the native birds have returned from migration, thus depriving them of their preferred nesting spots. Eastern bluebirds are one of the species that has been hardest hit by the impact of the house sparrow invasion. Ask anyone who monitors bluebird nest boxes and you’ll undoubtedly hear exasperation as they tell you about the house sparrows killing bluebird babies and building nests on top of their dead bodies. If you’d like to read more about this, check out this article from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
House sparrows are very adaptable, able to eat a wide variety of foods and to nest in human dwellings. If you’ve ever noticed birds inside your local Costco or other big box store, or noticed nests hanging on the outdoor storefront signs of any business, those are likely to be house sparrows.
These birds are the reason I don’t keep my bird feeders out all year long; there’s a large population of them here and they spend much of their time in my yard. They roost in shrubs in the yard, and arrive at the feeders in noisy flocks, pressuring other birds into looking elsewhere for food. I wish they weren’t such a problem, because they’re handsome birds. Well, at least the males are handsome; the females are more drab.
Here’s a group of them gathered on the rim of a water bucket at a dog park, with a single male on the left.
Finally, here are a few photos of the young hawk walking along the fence, peering down into the sparrows’ favorite roosting spot. He came away with empty talons this time, but I’ve seen Cooper’s hawks jump down into those shrubs and come out with a feathered meal many times. One day I saw two victims pulled out of there, a mourning dove and a house sparrow. I tend to mourn the loss of the dove more than that of the sparrow.
You may remember my teaser photo of this Great Blue Heron eating a fish a couple weeks ago, where I showed you the close-up view of the fish’s eye as it entered the mouth of the heron. This one:
Well here’s a series of pics showing the process of catching the fish and managing to get it down the throat. I’m always amazed at how deftly they manage to handle a slippery fish with no hands. Enjoy! (I’m making some assumptions about behavior here, so keep that in mind as you read my notes.)
So he grabs the fish and pulls it out of the water, immediately turning to the shore so it won’t be able to swim away if he drops it. (Click on any picture to see it larger, and I apologize that these pics aren’t very sharp — I had to crop them all.)
It’s still alive at this point, so I think he’s laying it down so he can deliver the killing blow.
Yep, that ought to do it. But, hmm, now it’s got dirt all over it. What to do, what to do?
Oh, I know…I’ll wash it off. (It could also be that he needs it to be wet to facilitate swallowing. I’m not sure how important it is to “wash” it.)
I always think it’s so cool how you can see the outline of the entire fish in the heron’s throat! I don’t know much about fish, but I think this might be a white bass.
I learned something really interesting about the Great Blue Heron today. Not only do they eat fish, but also sometimes amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals. And, here’s the cool part: They expel pellets of indigestible mammal hair, just like owls do! Did you know that? Apparently they can digest the bones, unlike owls, who expel bones in their pellets along with hair. I only learned a couple years ago that these pellets are expelled through the mouth rather than the other end of the body. I guess I never really thought about it much, until the day I saw a captive Northern Saw-whet Owl regurgitate a pellet right in front of me at an Audubon event. Fascinating stuff, isn’t it?
I’m seeing lots of amazing things at the Biggest Week in American Birding, but can only show you this for now. I took a series of photos of this Great Blue Heron as he caught and ate a huge fish. I’ll post the entire series later, but thought this particular shot was so interesting because of the proximity of the eyes of both predator and prey.
Three days into the festival and seven more to go. It’s already exhausting, but it will all be over far too soon!