Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Cicada Killer Wasp

I recently had an entertaining encounter with a Cicada Killer, Sphecius speciosus, our largest native wasp.  The females of this species construct burrows in the soil into which they place a cicada to act as a food source for their developing larvae.  I typically begin to see signs of burrowing activity around the first of August.

This individual provided me with some fine photo opportunities.  Using both corn leaves and the ground as perches, a watchful male spent the morning in the garden on the lookout for female Cicada Killers.  Several chases ensued, with one resulting in a pair of wasps in a love embrace spiraling into the sky.

The video shows the wasp constantly scanning its surroundings.  Body twitches and wing fluttering show its readiness to instantly take off after any passing female.

The Cicada Killer presents a fearsome image, but it is actually not at all aggressive.  Males are incapable of stinging, so this guy is completely harmless.  Females, which are capable of stinging, save that sting for their preferred prey.  A person would have to work hard to make one of these wasps sting, and that sting would be classified as justifiable self defense.

Female Cicada Killers build their burrows in areas of exposed soil.  Around here, they seem to prefer my shallow soiled, south facing front lawn, which typically shows bare ground in August as the lawn grasses enter summer dormancy. 

This is my favorite wasp species.  Many people have asked me how to get rid of these wasps.  I usually respond that the wasps are not a problem, so people should enjoy them.  When people say the wasp burrows are ruining their lawns, I reply that it must have been a poor lawn to begin with, otherwise the wasps would never have been attracted there.  When they accuse the wasps of attacking, I point out that a close fly-by does not constitute an attack.  I’ve never had to respond to any comments beyond that, because by that point, people have given up hope of getting any really practical advice from me.

In this video, the wasp has just had a close encounter with a passing Cicada Killer.  His body movements seem to display a heightened level of excitement.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Nodding Wild Onion Project

After eight years of trying, it appears that I’m finally learning how to raise captive Nodding Wild Onions, Allium cernuum.  It’s a good thing too, because the last of the wild plants disappeared from Blue Jay Barrens three years ago.  The onions in this pot represent the offspring of six plants taken from the wild and relocated into my prairie garden.  That left only a dozen plants growing in their original location, a site that was too shady for the plants to produce flowers.  You can read about the original relocation by clicking HERE.

The plants in this pot appear to be doing their best to break through the chicken wire barrier and reclaim their positions as wild plants.  There are more onion flowers this year than I’ve had in total over the last seven years.

This spring, I took a few young plants from the pot and relocated them to one of the native plant beds in my vegetable garden.  All of those plants have grown wonderfully.  They are currently sharing the bed with Spider Milkweed, Leavenworthia uniflora, and Draba cuneifolia.  I think the species in that mix should work well together.

Nodding Wild Onions produce lovely blooms that attract a wide variety of insects.  Here we have a beetle, a fly and a bunch of ants.

The most common pollinators this year are small green Sweat Bees.

Butterflies are not frequent visitors of the onion flowers, but there are sometimes exceptions.  This Olive Hairstreak spent close to five minutes exploring the onion flowers.  The Olive Hairstreak spring brood was quite successful this year.  The second brood is now coming on more strongly than I have seen in many years.

Early onion flowers are already producing seed pods.  I should have ample seed to increase my captive population of plants, as well as scatter some seed out into suitable wild sites.  It’s taken longer than I had originally thought, but I’m now becoming optimistic that this project could be successful.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Skunk Family

I’ve had a family of Striped Skunks foraging in the yard the past few nights. They usually disappear each morning before it gets light enough to take decent photographs, but thick clouds ahead of an approaching storm front caused them to hang around the yard a little bit later than usual yesterday morning. Young skunks tend to bunch up, sometimes making it difficult to determine how many animals you are dealing with.  This looks very much like a pair of adult skunks.

In this case it’s actually one mother skunk, the one to the left with fur exhibiting a yellow stain, and three youngsters.

Mother stopped for a bit of grooming and the kids crowded in close beside her.

Within seconds they pretty much had her pinned to the ground. They appeared to just want to stay close to Mom. I didn’t see any trying to nurse. Their size suggests that they should be weaned or nearly so.

Here’s a short video of skunk mother and child interaction.

They’re at that age where they are beginning to make short explorations on their own.

An unchaperoned excursion away from Mother is short-lived.

They quickly return to the security of the adult. The proportion of black fur to white fur is highly variable on striped skunks. Many of the Blue Jay Barrens specimens exhibit extensive white coloration on the backs and tails.

Finally, the family moved on. The thump and clatter I heard shortly after they left the yard told me that they were taking refuge in an old hay baler sitting below the barn. The family will disband soon and the youngsters will head out to find their own territories, but I’m sure I’ll be seeing them from time to time.

In this video, the skunk family heads down the trail in such a close formation they appear to be a single animal.  That is until one pops out of line.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Milkweed Catches Moth

In my last post I explained that milkweed pollination depended on an insect, or other flower visiting animal, snagging a pollen cluster, called a pollinium, from one flower and moving it to another flower.  Insects catch their legs on the thickened terminus of two pollinia bearing tethers and pull the pollen body from a slit in the flower.  The process is often a failure for both the flower and the pollinator.

This is a beautiful Reversed Haploa Moth.  I rarely get the opportunity to take my time photographing winged subjects before they disappear, but his moth wasn’t about to leave its perch.

I was originally attracted to the location by a frantically gyrating moth.  This often indicates that a pradator has grabbed hold and is trying to subdue its prey. 

Following a bout of fluttering, the moth would hang motionless from the flower.  A close examination of the situation showed no predator in evidence.  It appeared that one of the moth’s legs was caught by the milkweed flower.

This was exactly the case.  In the process of pulling free a pair of pollinia, the moth’s foot either caught on the pollinia tether or was directly caught in the flower slit.  The moth did not have the strength necessary to pull itself free.  This is a fairly common scenario that usually ends with the insect dying on the flower, or more typically, falling easy prey to some predator.

After capturing a few of the interesting poses presented by the moth, I pulled its leg loose from the trap and set it free. 

A short video for those who may never have witnessed the frantic gyrations of a trapped moth.  That foot must be really struck to hold fast against all of that exertion.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Common Milkweed

Common Milkweed is now in full bloom at Blue Jay Barrens.  Common Milkweed has a strong network of rhizomes that allow a single stalk to become many in a short amount of time.  Milkweeds have just about surrounded the Water Garden this year.  I had to remove some stalks from the driveway and a couple more that were threatening to block access to the front porch, but there are still plenty left for the Monarch butterflies and other animals.

Milkweeds form a mass of flowers whose stalks all originate from the same point, a form known as an umbel. The large number of flowers found in each umbel typically cause the umbel to appear in the form of a sphere.

The petals fold back to reveal a central column of reproductive parts which is surrounded by a set of five two-part structures known as the hood and horn.  This arrangement has always reminded me of the old dental spit-sink with a hooked claw emerging from the drain.

Milkweeds do not produce the dust like pollen common in many flowers. To affect pollination, an insect carries a pollen mass, known as a pollinium, from one flower to another. A knot like affair joins two pollinia by short threads.  The insect’s foot or leg catches the thread and pulls the pollinia from a slit between the hoods. The photo above shows the location of the slit with pollinia still intact. Above that is a pair of pollinia that have been removed from the flower. I guess a flower needs to attract a wide range of insect visitors when pollination requires an incidental snagging of a pollen mass followed by the proper placement of that pollen mass on a new flower.

Milkweed flowers attract a wide range of bee species, from large…

… to small.

Some insects are attracted to the milkweed plant not by the flowers, but by other flower visitors. This is a Conopid fly.  Conopid larvae are parasitic on bumblebees. The Conopid adult will attack a bumblebee in the air, force apart two abdominal segments, and lay an egg in the abdomen of the bumblebee. The larva consumes the bumblebee from within over the course of a couple of weeks. The action of this parasitic consumption causes the bumblebee to dig a hole and bury itself before dying, providing the Conopid larva with shelter in which to pupate and overwinter.

Like many other insects, the Conopid Fly uses mimicry to help avoid predation. In this case the fly looks suspiciously like a wasp.  Would-be predators, fearful of a stinging response, are more likely to pass this fly by.  The easy way to tell the difference between a fly and a wasp is to count the wings. A wasp has two pairs of wings, while a fly only has a single pair. In lieu of the second pair of wings found on bees and wasps, a fly has a pair of structures known as halteres.  Halteres help to balance the fly in-flight. In the photo above, the two white objects at the rear of the thorax are the halteres.

Highly colorful Long-legged Flies flit about the leaf surfaces of many plants. The large milkweed leaves seem to particularly attract this insect.

It wouldn’t be a milkweed plant without Milkweed Bugs. Milkweed Bug pairs are often in mating tandem at this time of year. The reproductive process is not going to stop the upper bug from probing the milkweed flowers for a meal. The lower bugs is dragging around a pair of pollinia on its middle foot. The pollinia will be wasted if not deposited into an open flower.

Goldenrod Soldier Beetles are also busy with courtship rituals. These beetles are pollen eaters and will visit many species of flowers besides their namesake Goldenrods.

The milkweed flowers are brightly colored, strongly scented producers of abundant nectar. Most moth visitors appear after dark and are rarely noticed.  The Hummingbird Clearwing is one of the few brightly colored moths that visit the flowers during the daytime.

Many species of skippers are attracted to milkweed. This is the Silver-spotted Skipper, one of the largest and most easily recognized of that group.

Butterflies of all sizes visit milkweed. On the smaller end of the scale are the tiny hairstreaks, like this attractively marked Banded Hairstreak.

Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies have been mobbing some of the milkweed flowers. If your interest is in viewing butterflies, and other interesting animals, it’s worth encouraging a few Common Milkweed plants to live somewhere near your house.

Still photos don’t do justice to mobbing butterflies, so I offer the short video above.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Young Black Rat Snake

Black Rat Snakes were not particularly common when we first moved to this property 30+ years ago.  After a few years, snakes took up residence in our barn, garage and attic.  From then on, encounters with adult Black Rat Snakes became common.  It’s just been in the last couple of years that I have begun to regularly see youngsters.

I found this young snake perched on a leaning stake intended to hold up the side of a brush pile.  From this position, the snake had nowhere to go.  I think it was contemplating its next move as I arrived.

Young Black Rat Snakes have an overall grayish coloration decorated with a row of brown patches running the length of the back.  A hatchling leaves the egg with a body length of about one foot.  The pattern is most pronounced in the newly hatched specimens, but is slowly masked by dark pigment that develops as the snake ages.  At maturity, around four years of age, the snake will be about five feet long and predominantly black.  This individual measured at about 26 inches long.

Almost every young Black Rat Snake that I find seems to have a distinctive bulge of a recently swallow meal.  I always picture a mouse inside the bulge, but it could just as easily be some other small mammal, bird, reptile or amphibian.

After a moment of watching me take its picture, the snake turned around and headed down into the brush pile.  Somewhere in that mass of branches is probably where the cause of the snake’s bulge came from.

I found it interesting that as I entered the garage just minutes from having my young snake encounter, I came upon an adult Black Rat Snake patrolling the storage area in search of a tasty rodent meal.  This could easily be a parent of the youngster outside.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Red-headed Woodpeckers

Red-headed Woodpecker numbers continue to climb at Blue Jay Barrens.  There are at least five individuals that regularly visit the yard, and I frequently see others about the property.

Of course, the Red-headed Woodpecker has a ways to go before it displaces the Blue Jay as the most noticeable bird species here.

The birds are most easily observed at the feeder. 

Sunflower seeds are collected in quantity…

… and removed to nearby deadwood snags to be opened and consumed.

It’s generally just one woodpecker at a time at the feeder.  Others wait in the trees for their turn at the seed.

I’m becoming used to hearing the calls of these beautifully colored birds.  I hope the Blue Jay Barrens population continues to grow.