Archive for the 'Insects, Fish, Frogs' Category

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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Jul 25 2014

Not Just A Pine Cone

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Eastern fence lizard on a pine cone, 6 Jul 2014, VA Beach (photo by Kate St.John)

On Fourth of July weekend I was hiking at First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach when I noticed an odd-looking pine cone in the dappled shade next to the trail.  I paused to look more closely.

It’s not just a pine cone!

Here’s a better look.

Eastern fence lizard on a pine cone, 6 Jul 2014, VA Beach (photo by Kate St.John)

… and this view from a different angle.

Eastern fence lizard on a pine cone, 6 Jul 2014, VA Beach (photo by Kate St.John)

After two minutes of my ever-closer approach this lizard had had enough and ran away.

I know nothing about lizards so I googled images for a “brown lizard sandy shore Virginia” and found a photo whose description said “Matches the pine cone.”  How cool is that!  Someone else had photographed an eastern fence lizard on a pine cone.

I also found out that …

  • The eastern fence lizard (Sceloporus undulatus) is native to the eastern U.S. and southern Pennsylvania.  Theoretically I should have seen one in all my years of hiking near Pittsburgh but this is a first for me.  (I’ll admit I haven’t been looking very hard.)
  • Their scales are keeled, a feature you can see in the photos.
  • Eastern fence lizards are sexually dimorphic.  This one is female because her throat and flanks are whitish where adult males are shiny blue.  During the mating season males flash their blue bellies to attract the ladies and tell other guys, “This is my territory.” Click here to see the male’s amazing underside.
  • That flashy blue behavior is risky.  Flashy males are more likely to be eaten by birds.
  • In 2009 Penn State biologist Tracy Langkilde reported that eastern fence lizards who live where there are fire ants have longer legs than their predecessors 70 years ago — an example of evolution in action. They’ve also learned to twitch instead of freeze when they encounter the voracious ants that can kill them in less than a minute.

I’m glad I stopped to examine that pine cone.  I usually say, “Keep looking up” but it pays to look down sometimes, too.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jul 13 2014

Hover Flies Up Close

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Hover flies mating, Custards Marsh (photo by Shawn Collins)

Here’s a beautiful close-up of two hover flies mating on a chicory flower, taken by Shawn Collins with his macro lens.

Who knew that the female is larger than the male? That their eyes are different colors? That they have knobs on their heads … Are those antennae?

Awesome photo!

 

Click here to browse Shawn’s photostream on Flickr.

p.s. Oh no!  Yesterday Shawn’s Canon T3i died on an Err 30 while shooting marbled godwits and willets at Conneaut Harbor, Ohio.  Bad break!  He’ll be camera-less until next Saturday.  :(

(photo by Shawn Collins)

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Jul 11 2014

Slow Down And Watch

Here’s a beautiful wildlife video of beetles and birds in slow motion.

Slow down and watch.

Happy Friday!

 

(video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology via YouTube)

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Jul 07 2014

Invasion of the Billbugs

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Billbug on a window (photo by Kate St. John)

A week ago these bugs were everywhere, so many that they made the news.

I noticed them on June 30 when I saw more than twenty tiny dark bugs perched on the outside of my office window.  What bugs were these, why were there so many of them, and why were they on the window?

Other people encountered the bugs too — at poolsides, on car roofs, in backyards — and they were scared because the bugs looked like engorged ticks.

Though close in size to ticks, I could tell these were not because:

  • Ticks are Arachnids, related to spiders. They have 8 legs. These bugs have 6.
  • Ticks don’t have wings.  These bugs have wings under their elytra (wing covers) and though they weren’t flying very much I saw a few of them raise their wing covers and suddenly fly away.
  • Ticks do not have snouts.  These bugs have snouts(!) like inflexible elephants’ trunks.
  • Ticks never swarm .. and that’s what these bugs were doing.

Using Google and BugGuide.net I narrowed their identity to some sort of snout and bark weevil.  But which one?  And why were there so many of them?

Meanwhile public fear and misunderstanding prompted KDKA to call the Allegheny County Health Department’s Entymologist, Bill Todaro for information.  He knew what they were right away: Nut and Acorn Weevils. Also called billbugs, they eat only plants, never bite people, and swarm in late June because they’re looking for a member of the opposite sex to mate with.

Here’s an annotated closeup of one of the Nut and Acorn Weevils on my office window.  This is a view of his underside because he was outside on the glass.

Nut and Acorn Weevil on the window, 1 July 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

So, they were really nothing to worry about.  They were courting.  We just never noticed them before.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Jul 05 2014

What The Bee Sees

Pale touch-me-not (photo by Kate St. John)

Blooming now in southwestern Pennsylvania, Pale Touch-me-not (Impatiens pallida) beacons to bees with its yellow landing pad.

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Jun 29 2014

Color On The Wing

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Calico pennant (photo by Charlie Hickey)

If you’re like me, you’re in the midst of a low spot in the birding year.  There are lots of birds in Pennsylvania right now but they’re secretive because they’re nesting, and they’re going to stop singing in July.  Sigh.  (Check out this graph of the birders’ emotional year to see what I mean.)

However, it’s Bug Season!  Beautiful bugs are here to fill our need for color on the wing.

In June Charlie Hickey and his wife watch for the dragonflies to emerge from the lake at their backyard in Berks County.  Charlie posted this Calico Pennant (Celithemis elisa) on his Flickr page on June 5, the day they first appeared.

Dragonflies come in so many colors: blue and green Eastern Pondhawks, golden Eastern Amberwings, black and white Widow Skimmers.  My very favorite is the black and iridescent blue Ebony Jewelwing Damselfly.

Click here to see Charlie’s Odonata (dragonfly) album.  So many colors on the wing!

 

(photo by Charlie Hickey)

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