Friday, July 20, 2018

Eastern Hognose Snake

I recently had an interesting encounter with an Eastern Hognose Snake. The snake had gotten itself caught in the mesh of a rat trap that had been set in my barn. My primary concern was releasing the snake from the grip of the wire before it injured itself, so I only took it couple of quick photos before beginning the rescue operation. By snipping and bending a single wire, I was able to quickly release the snake from the trap.

Hognose snakes have a wide repertoire of harmless defensive actions that they employ when they feel threatened. This individual went through the entire routine. It began by flattening of its head and neck in an attempt to look more threatening. As I snipped the cage wire, the snake hissed loudly and produced a guttural noise that sounded almost like a growl. It struck repeatedly at my hands and arms, but its mouth was not open, so all I felt were taps from its nose. As I slid the snake’s body out of the trap, it imitated a death spasm and released a highly pungent poop that splattered on everything nearby. It was an unfortunate circumstance that, due to an ongoing severe thunderstorm, I was performing the rescue operation on the covered front porch of the house.

The next stage in the snake’s act was to play dead. It hung limply from my hand as I took it out for release next to the barn.

Upon being set down, the snake rolled onto its back with mouth agape. 

The above video shows the snake repeatedly rolling over onto its back after being placed belly down.

I left the snake draped around a piece of wood, upright but still looking very much dead. When the thunderstorm abated a few minutes later, I went out to check and found that the snake had moved on. Hognose snakes feed on toads. It’s for this reason that I have been constructing breeding pools in hopes of increasing the toad population. More toads mean more Hognose Snakes, and that’s what I would like to see.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Edwards' Hairstreak Butterfly Census 2018

Since I don’t actually count the butterflies or produce any type of tally, my annual observations of the Edwards’ Hairstreak Butterfly can’t really be called a census.  What I do is search appropriate habitat at Blue Jay Barrens to get an idea of current size and distribution of this uncommon butterfly.

Each year, I find butterflies in new locations and in concentrations larger than the year before.

Edwards’ Hairstreak Butterflies were quite rare when I first surveyed this property 33 years ago.  It took years before I found my first specimen.  Subsequent annual searches resulted in sightings of just a few individuals or, in some years, no sightings at all.  Now I can find that many or more sharing a single flower cluster.

One of my first management projects was to make the property more suitable to Edwards’ Hairstreaks.  I cleared Eastern Red Cedar from the fields to promote prairie like habitat, and encouraged the growth of Blackjack Oak, the Edwards’ Hairstreak preferred larval food. 

As habitat improved, the number of butterflies increased.  Nectar plants also responded to the management efforts and increased in number.  Butterfly Weed, a favorite of the hairstreaks, is now common in most areas containing butterfly colonies.

A few years ago it was uncommon to see more than a single Edwards’ Hairstreak on a clump of Butterfly Weed flowers.  Now the butterflies visit the blooms in masses.  There are 10 butterflies clearly visible nectaring on Butterfly Weed in the above photo.  There are still suitable areas not yet being utilized by the butterflies, so butterfly numbers have the potential to increase for many years yet.

The above video shows some Edwards’ Hairstreak nectaring action.  A few Honeybees are also trying grab some of the nectar.  Near the end of the video, one butterfly appears to headbutt another away from his flower cluster.  This video can be viewed on YouTube by clicking HERE.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Cycnia collaris Brood 2

Another batch of Cycnia collaris, formerly Cycnia inopinatus, is munching its way through the clump of Common Milkweed beside my front porch.  I’m assuming these larvae to be the offspring of the brood that showed up in May and went into pupation a few weeks ago.  That would make these larvae brood two .

More than a few of the brood one Cycnia larvae must have avoided playing host to Tachinid fly offspring and survived to adulthood.  I counted 69 larvae of this State Endangered moth species feeding on a single milkweed plant.  Additional larvae were present on many other milkweed plants close by.  As with the previous brood, it appears that the adults emerged from the leaf litter at the base of the plants and deposited a nice batch of eggs on plants readily accessible.

Larvae just recently moved onto the leaf on the left side of the photo.  They made the move after reducing the leaf on the right to a bare skeleton.

There’s not much tender young growth on the milkweed plants right now.  This doesn’t seem to slow down the Cycnia larvae at all.  The smallest larvae appear to have no trouble dining on the oldest and toughest of leaves.  The thick leaves allow the larvae to eat a lot without moving very far.  This sometimes results in a frass chain forming behind the larva.

Several severe storms have knocked down the milkweeds during the last few weeks.  Some plants have given up trying to right themselves.

The Cycnia females found the horizontal milkweeds to be just as desirable as those in a vertical position.  The larvae are quickly stripping the edible material from these leaves.  Having this action occurring right outside my front door has provided an ideal opportunity to learn something about the habits of this rare species.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Unexpected Cycnia and Tachinid Flies

The Cycnia collaris larvae have disappeared, presumably to complete the next phase of their life cycle.  It was a lot of fun to have the opportunity to observe their behavior on a daily basis, even though some of the observations were rather disturbing.

The 70 or 80 larvae that began their lives crowded in a small clump of Common Milkweed plants, soon became mobile and began to disperse.  Larvae of a size approximating half of their potential full grown dimensions were found wandering as far as 50 feet from their birth plants.  In all cases there were milkweed plants in the direction of their travels.  It wasn’t long before all larvae were absent from the original plants.

Their dispersal pattern spread the larvae out, but instead of having a couple of larvae on each plant in the vicinity, they clustered into small groups.

Once they got settled into their new locations, I began seeing some ominous ornamentation on many of the larvae.  On closer examination, each white spot was identified as the egg of a predator.

This is the culprit, a Tachinid Fly, a species that lays its eggs on the bodies of other insects.  Observers of Monarch butterfly caterpillars are familiar with this species and its ability to decimate caterpillar populations on milkweed plants.  Fly larvae hatch from the eggs and immediately enter the body of the caterpillar, where they will feed until they are mature enough to pupate.  Caterpillars do not survive the experience. 

Most affected larvae displayed one or two eggs.

Rarely, I found larvae carrying three eggs.  About half of the larvae I inspected were carrying fly eggs.

The video shows a fly searching the leaf for larvae.  Although the fly investigates two of the three larvae found beneath the leaf, it laid no eggs.  When I later checked, these three larvae were already carrying eggs.  Perhaps the fly senses larvae that are already infested, and passes without leaving additional eggs.  In an earlier encounter I watched a fly chase a Cycnia larvae that was running across the surface of a leaf.  The fly was approaching from the right and the larva kept making quick directional changes to the left. When the fly was within range it leapt on the Cycnia larva’s head.  Almost immediately, the Cycnia larva snapped into a C shape and popped off the leaf.  It ended up in the water, so I scooped it out and gave it a close examination.  Two fly eggs were attached just behind the head.  I am assuming that one or both of these eggs had just been attached.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Common Milkweed Hosting Larvae of Unexpected Tiger Moth

My first encounter with the Blue Jay Barrens population of the Ohio endangered Unexpected Tiger Moth, Cycnia collaris, formerly Cycnia inopinatus, was seven years ago.  My encounters with this species have increased each year since then, and this year is no exception.

Unexpected Tiger Moths are a milkweed dependent species.  Last fall, a few larvae were found on Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, growing in the narrow strip between my driveway and Water Garden.  When larvae of this species are ready to pupate, they move into the plant litter at the base of the host plant and pupate near the soil surface.  I am assuming that this is exactly what occurred last September.  This spring, the adults emerged and apparently laid masses of eggs on the young milkweed plants emerging at the time.

The larvae are present in numbers many times greater than what I saw last year.    The amount of plant damage occurring from feeding larvae is readily apparent.

Most of the feeding is occurring on the young leaves at the growing tip of the plant.  There are about 10 larvae working on the particular plant.

Plants with more larvae show more leaf damage.

There are at least 20 larvae working on this plant.  The milkweed can’t grow quickly enough to stay ahead of these ravenous caterpillars.

Many of the larvae are moving out to begin feeding on the older leaves.  This intensive feeding won’t harm the milkweed.  This batch of larvae, the first of two yearly broods, will soon mature and leave the plant to pupate.  The plant will recover and be ready to hopefully host another batch of larvae in August.

The video shows feeding activity in one of the areas of highest larvae concentration.  Click HERE to view the video on YouTube, which usually provides a clearer image.  Click HERE to view earlier posts concerning this species.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Barrens Garden

Eighteen years ago, as the first act of creating a water garden, I dug a large hole near my front porch. Approximately 55 cubic yards of material was removed from the hole and placed in a pile here, near the east side of my barn.  First came slabs of sod a couple of inches thick that were placed in the upper left-hand corner the above photo. Next came the removal of a half foot of clay subsoil that found a permanent residence in the upper center of the photo. Following that, I chiseled through 2 feet of fractured limestone bedrock and added that to my spoil pile. Over the years the material has settled down to become a solid fixture in the landscape.

After several years, the gravel area began to closely resemble the gravelly barrens found tucked away in some of the steeper hillside prairies of Blue Jay Barrens. I then began considering the idea of introducing into this gravel pile seed from some of the rarer winter annuals found growing in the gravelly barrens. My last year’s crop of captive Leavenworthia uniflora and Draba cuneifolia produced such an abundance of seed that I had plenty to invest in this new project that I am calling the Barrens Garden.

In July 2017, I scattered seed over the entire spoil pile.  The results did not disappoint. Shown above are some of the hundreds of rare Draba cuneifolia that resulted from that seeding.

Drabas and Leavenworthia are both members of the mustard family and their flowers show the standard four petal arrangement. These plants are annuals and will not survive past Midsummer. All of the plant’s energy goes into the production of flowers and seeds. Seeds that fall to the ground in June will begin to germinate in October or November. Rosettes of basal leaves will form and grow through the winter. Flower stalks and blooms typically arrive in April.

Leavenworthia uniflora usually follows the same growth pattern of the Draba, although a greater proportion of the seeds tend to wait until February to germinate.

In other wildflower gardens I’ve created, my primary problem is the habit of plants developing much more robustly than they do in their natural setting. It appears that I’ve managed to provide conditions in this Barrens Garden that closely mimic the natural conditions. Above are three Leavenworthia uniflora bracketing a standard dime. The basal rosettes are hardly much larger than that ten cent piece.

Here’s that same dime beside two Leavenworthia uniflora growing in the natural barrens. The size of the plants is almost identical to that found in my Barrens Garden. I have high hopes that this project is going to prove to be a long term success.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Split Season Wood Frog Breeding

During roughly the third week of February, the Wood Frogs of Blue Jay Barrens swarmed into the pond for their annual mating event. The behavior is typical for that time of year; however, weather conditions and the intensity of the mating activities were not what I have come to expect.

February 17 – Six inches of snow falls. February 18 – Temperatures struggle to reach the low 40s. Snow melts slowly and is nearly gone by evening. Wood Frogs begin to enter the pond. February 19 – High temperature reaches 75°F. Wood Frogs continue courtship activities through the day and into the night. February 20 – High temperature reaches 80°F. Wood Frog courtship activities can almost be described as frantic and continue through the day. February 21 – high temperature around 35°F. Three inches of snow falls. Wood Frogs have disappeared.

On March 28 Wood Frogs returned to the pond and were heard calling for the next three nights.  Weather was rainy and cool through the period.  This is the first time Wood Frog breeding activities divided in this manner.

The swimming frogs seem to pull in their eyeballs when swimming with head submerged.

In order to project the sound of their calls, the Wood Frogs inflate air sacs located on each side of the body.  The sacs act as resonating chambers for the call. In the above photo the frog is seen from behind, showing the twin air sacs in the foreground and the two bulging eyes behind.

Surface tension causes the water to curve and ride up the frog’s body. The water then reflects the sky and the surrounding landscape, making it difficult to see the frog itself. I wonder if this might afford the frog a degree of camouflage and protection from water level predators.

The short video above offers a view of a calling Wood Frog and a broader view of activity in the pond. The video can also be seen on YouTube by clicking HERE.