Archive for the 'Insects, Fish, Frogs' Category

Sep 20 2014

Who’s On First?

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Question mark butterfly, fall form (photo by Kate St. John)

I am so new to butterfly identification that most of them prompt a question.  I photographed this one near the Kiski River in Armstrong County last Sunday.  What’s the name of this butterfly?

“It’s a question mark.”

No, really, I want to know.  Here’s the ventral side.  What’s the name of this butterfly?

Underside of question mark butterfly, fall form ... but cannot see the mark (photo by Kate St. John)

“It’s a question mark.”

Honestly, I’m not kidding.  What’s the name of this butterfly?

“It’s a question mark because it has a small white question mark on the underside of its hind wing.”

Well, this one doesn’t.  At least not that I can see.  Please tell me, What’s the name of this butterfly?

It’s a question mark, Polygonia interrogationis.

I give up.  Who’s on First?

(Watch Abbott and Costello drive each other nuts in this video of their Who’s on First? skit.)

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Sep 13 2014

Isabella Scoffs At Winter

Isabella tiger moth caterpillar (photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday I found this Isabella Tiger moth caterpillar in Schenley Park.  Does she have a prediction for the coming winter?

Legend has it that wide brown stripes on woolly bear caterpillars predict a mild winter; narrow brown stripes mean a harsh one.

In the 1950′s the former curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History surveyed a very small sample of woolly bears and found that the caterpillars had an 80% accuracy rate.  However, no one’s been able to replicate Dr. C. H. Curran’s findings.  Instead a whole host of factors influence the stripes including species, diet and age.  Especially age.  The older instars are browner.

And frankly, this caterpillar doesn’t care how harsh the winter.  It can survive to -90 degrees F, hibernating as a caterpillar (not in a cocoon!) curled up in a ball under a rock or bark.  It freezes completely except for the innermost portions of its cells which are protected by naturally produced glycerol.  In the spring the caterpillar thaws and resumes eating before making a cocoon and becoming a moth.

Theoretically this particular caterpillar is saying “mild winter” but we know it ain’t so.

Isabella scoffs at winter.

Read more here about the woolly bear legend and amazing winter feats.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Aug 21 2014

TBT: Laying Eggs

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Cicada on a tree branch (photo by JohnTsui via Wikimedia Commons)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

August is a busy time for cicadas.  Though there aren’t a lot of them this year, those that are here are busy mating and laying eggs for the next generation.

Did you know that cicadas lay their eggs under the bark of tree twigs?  Eventually you can tell where they’ve done it because the leaves turn brown on the branch tips.

Brown tips on tree branches because of cicada egg-laying (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Back in 2008 I caught one in the act.  Click here to read about cicadas laying eggs.

 

(photo of cicada on tree branch by John Tsui via Wikimedia Commons.  photo of brown tree tips from Wikimedia Commons.  Click on each image to see its original)

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Aug 16 2014

Love This Blue

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Red spotted purple butterfly (photo by Kate St. John)

The color of indigo buntings and mountain bluebirds, this butterfly is pretending to be something else.

Its name is “Red Spotted Purple” (Limenitis arthemis) — no mention of blue! — and its color mimics the poisonous Pipevine Swallowtail.   I suppose the orangish red spots on its underside gave it its name.

This one was mud-puddling with other butterflies at Jennings Prairie last weekend, but I ignored them because they weren’t this color.

I have never seen the deep blue Pipevine Swallowtail.

Love this color.

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Aug 10 2014

Not a Hummingbird

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Hummingbird moth at wild bergamot (photo by Steve Gosser)

Here’s a moth that’s the same size and color as a hummingbird and it uses the same hovering technique.

The hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe) even migrates — another bird-like trait.

Steve Gosser captured this moth sipping wild bergamot.

When you glance at your garden look carefully.  That hummingbird might be a moth.

 

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Aug 09 2014

August Nectar

Honeybee at blue vervain, August 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

August flowers have broken the nectar dearth.

This honeybee is feeding at blue vervain (Verbena hastata) in Schenley Park.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Aug 07 2014

Fog Webs

Spider silk revealed by fog (photo by Kate St. John)

Monday morning’s thick fog held some surprises:  Pitt’s 40-story Cathedral of Learning “disappeared” yet all the spider webs stood out.

In Schenley Park diaphanous silk connected the flowers.  Where is the spider who made this?  Will he find the aphids sheltering under the flower head?

On the ground I found many small white “area rugs” like this one.

Funnel spider web (photo by Kate St. John)

These are funnel spider webs.  Mostly flat, they slope inward to a single hole.

Here’s a closeup of the hole beneath that horizontal blade of grass.

Funnel hole of the funnel spider web (photo by Kate St. John)

An even closer look reveals the funnel spider lurking inside.  The slightest movement on his “carpet” brings him out in a flash to capture his prey.

Funnel spider in his web (photo by Kate St. John)

I tried to make him emerge by touching the web but he knows the difference between a human touch and the struggling movements of prey.  He won’t come out for me.

And yes, it’s Throw Back Thursday.  Here’s a 2008 article with a lot more information on funnel spiders.  Read What’s This Cloud on the Ground?

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 03 2014

With A Little Help From My Friends

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Butterfly on butterfly weed (photo by Kate St. John)

Last July I took this photo of a butterfly at the Montour Trail near Pittsburgh but even after searching BugGuide.net I could not identify it.

I got close.  I guessed it was a crescent, maybe a northern crescent, but forgot to look up the species’ range.  Uh oh!  Range is important when identifying birds and even more important with butterflies.  Northern crescents are unlikely in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Field marks are important, too, but I didn’t have all of them.  My photo shows the upper side but the underside of a butterfly often holds the deciding field mark.

Puzzled, I emailed my butterfly friends Chuck Tague and Monica Miller.

Chuck told me that pearl and northern crescents look a lot alike but the location indicates this is a pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos), not a northern.  Monica added that “My understanding is you really can only reliably tell them apart upon dissection and the northerns would only be found in places north of us like Buzzard Swamp.”

Wow.  These butterflies are as hard to suss apart as chickadees!  I’m glad I didn’t find this one in their overlapping range.

I’ve got quite a lot to learn about butterflies.  In the meantime I’m getting by with a little help from my friends.

Thank you, Chuck & Monica!

 

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Aug 01 2014

Bee Wars!

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

July is the time when bees have wars.  I knew nothing about this until Facebook-friend Chad Steele described a war at his hive on July 21.

Chad wrote, “During a walk yesterday there was a huge cloud of bees all around and over the hive. At first I thought they were swarming. But looking closer, it appeared that there was another swarm trying to get into the hive, especially where I just put on the new boxes.  I got even closer and saw bees fighting each other to the death.”

I asked my bee-keeping friend, Joan Guerin, to tell me more.  She explained that in July there’s a dearth of nectar because spring flowers have finished and late summer flowers have not ramped up.  Hungry bees go scouting for nectar and when they find a colony with weak defenses they try to get in.  Successful scouts go back home and recruit more invaders.  The war is on!

Chad found this out first-hand.  Wearing his bee-keeping gear, “I got into the fray again, inside the older boxes, and pulled out a frame to get some idea what was occurring… And I was surprised to see hundreds of bees uncapping the honey cells, and drinking it!! Occasionally there was one being attacked by another bee…  The cloud of bees was huge and after putting the frame back I concluded that this was a takeover.”

The drama began silently a few months before.  Chad figured out that the queen had died in late May or June and no queen succeeded her.  With no new eggs and bees being born in the colony the worker population dwindled.  By July Chad’s hive was a much smaller group, unable to defend their colony.

Ultimately, the invaders stole the honey and the old hives’ workers completely died out.  Chad has left two boxes in place in hopes that a honeybee swarm, looking for a new home, will come in and start a new colony.  “That is how we got this one, so it could happen again. Especially since there is obviously a strong hive somewhere nearby …Time will tell.

Watch the video above to see bees attack a few invaders at a hive in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Who knew that honeybees fight to the death in hand-to-hand combat?  I learn something new every day.

 

(video from YouTube by Tulsa bees)

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Jul 28 2014

S is for Snake

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Eastern hognose snake (photo from Wikimedia Commons, altered)

If you’re afraid of snakes, please pretend this is a big “S” or close your eyes while you read.

I’m inspired to write about eastern hognose snakes today because summer is prime time for reptiles in Pennsylvania and a remark made in the PA-Herps Facebook group has stuck with me since last winter: “The only way to get bitten by a hognose snake is to smell like its prey.”

The eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos) is native from Minnesota to southern New Hampshire, from Florida to eastern Texas.  It is more than two feet long and comes in so many colors and patterns that it defies an easy description.

I imagine that during summer’s heat I might see a hognose snake but the chance is slim.  I don’t look for snakes because I can’t identify most of them and some are poisonous.  My caution prevents discovery.

However, this snake is safe.  Very safe.  He won’t bite but he may scare you.  Wikipedia describes his defensive behavior:

When threatened, the neck is flattened and the head is raised off the ground, not unlike a cobra. [Cobra!!]  They also hiss and will strike, but they do not attempt to bite. The result can be likened to a high speed head-butt. If this threat display does not work to deter a would-be predator, a hognose snake will often roll onto its back and play dead, going so far as to emit a foul musk from its cloaca and let its tongue hang out of its mouth.

If I managed to get close to a calm hognose I’d see why he has this name — an upturned nose like a hog.

Ton an eastern hognose snake (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

But I’m not eager to get so close. If I scared him, the “cobra act” would frighten me. The “high speed head-butt” would give me a heart attack.  Both the snake and I would be lolling on the ground with our tongues hanging out.

S is for Sometimes Scary.

 

(photo of an eastern hognose snake from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license.  I have vertically flipped the original image to make an S. Click on the image to see the original at Wikimedia)

 

p.s. Despite the tone of this article, I am not afraid of snakes.

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