Archive for the 'Insects, Fish, Frogs' Category

Jun 06 2013

Synchronous Fireflies

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Fireflies are just starting to emerge in southwestern Pennsylvania and with them the opportunity to see a very special phenomenon.

Most fireflies flash individually but in a few special places on earth — pockets in the Appalachians and in Thailand — the males flash in synchrony.   While the female fireflies wait on the ground, the males fly above and flash together — blinking in synchrony 6 to 8 times, then pausing for 8 seconds.  Their display is so beautiful that these sites have become meccas for firefly lovers.

Right now this light show is going on in Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Elkmont, Tennessee as you can see in the video above.

If Tennessee is too far away, you can see them closer to home in the Allegheny National Forest.  Synchronous fireflies were discovered there in 2011 and studied last year by the experts from Tennessee who found that we have the same species that displays in the forest near Elkmont.

See them for yourself at the first annual PA Firefly Festival, June 21-23 at the Black Caddis Ranch Bed & Breakfast in Kellettville, PA.  Volunteers will guide you to the light show from 9:00pm to midnight on Friday and Saturday.  Visit the PA Firefly Festival website for more information.

We’re lucky to have such a cool light show near home.

(video from Knoxville News Sentinel on YouTube)

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Apr 20 2013

They’re Back

Tentworms on a cherry sapling in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

With warm weather, migrating birds and new leaves come leaf eaters like these tentworms that are building their tent on a choke cherry sapling in Schenley Park.

I noticed the first tents Friday morning after Thursday’s very hot weather.

I wonder what this weekend’s cold weather will do to them…

(photo by Kate St. John)

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Apr 01 2013

Sounds Like Ducks

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Wood frog (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Last Saturday at Raccoon Wildflower Reserve I heard the sound of ducks in the woods but I wasn’t fooled.  I knew they were wood frogs.

For most of the year wood frogs (Rana sylvatica) keep a low profile.  In the summer they hide under leaves to avoid being eaten.  In the winter they’re literally frozen “frog-sicles” under the leaf litter, but in early spring they emerge for an orgy in the nearest vernal pond.

The male wood frogs float around and call to attract the females.  When the crowd really gets going they sound like ducks.  The first time I heard them I searched in vain for the flock of ducks making so much noise at the edge of a damp field.  Hah!  Wood frogs.  Click here to hear.

When the lady frogs arrive the orgy begins.  Multiple males grab a female and ride around on her back.  The pond becomes dotted with clumps of frogs.

After they mate the female wood frogs lay masses of eggs in big globs like this.

Wood frog eggs (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Then the orgy is over.  The adults disappear into the woods and the sound of ducks comes to an end.

Ironically, there’s a duck whose courtship call sounds like frogs:  the hooded merganser.

Nature is playing April Fools.

(photos by Marcy Cunkelman)

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Feb 13 2013

Pepper On The Snow

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Snow fleas near a log (photo by Marianne Atkinson)

Have you ever seen pepper on snow?  Did the pepper jump when you approached?

Last weekend Marianne Atkinson found black sprinkles on the snow near her home in Clearfield County, PA.

The “pepper” is hard to see in her first photo. Here’s a closeup.

Several snow fleas (photo by Marianne Atkinson)


These are snow fleas (Hypogastrura nivicola), a springtail species that earned its name because it appears on top of snow on warm winter days and, like all springtails, it jumps like a flea to avoid danger.

Springtails as a group are very interesting creatures:

  • They are very small, less than 0.24 inches long.  To see them well you have to magnify them.
  • They have a spring-loaded furcula (like a tail) that they clasp under their bodies.  When they let go the “tail” whaps the ground and propels them into the air.
  • Springtails are technically hexapods, not insects.
  • Most springtails live in leaf litter and topsoil where they eat decomposing plants and animals.
  • They are very gregarious.
  • They are highly sensitive to drought. Because they breathe through their cuticle (hard skin) they can’t afford to dry out.
  • Springtails are a sign of good soil because they are very sensitive to herbicides, pesticides and pollution. Folsomia candida are used in the lab for soil toxicology tests because they avoid — or die of — chemicals at very low levels.
  • There can be 100,000 springtails in one cubic meter of soil, making them one of the most abundant macroscopic animals on earth.

Snow fleas themselves are extra special.  They are active in winter because they have a protein in their bodies that works like anti-freeze.

Sometimes it’s the little things that are the most fascinating.

(photos by Marianne Atkinson)

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Jan 24 2013

Confuse A Cuttlefish

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Cuttlefish are masters of disguise.

What happens when you try to confuse one?

(video from YouTube)

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Dec 23 2012

Holiday Frog

This Red-eyed Treefrog (Agalychnis callidryas) looks like he’s ready for the holidays with bright red eyes, green skin, orange toes and blue sides.

How does a frog this colorful manage to hide?  He would be easy prey except for his camouflage capability.

When young these treefrogs have brown skin that made it easy to hide in the Central American rain forest.

As an adult he tries to match the leaves.  He flattens himself against a green leaf, pulls in his orange toes and positions his legs to hide his blue sides.  Then he closes his red eyes.

Poof!  He’s a leaf.

When awake, he contributes to a vibrant world.

(photo by Charlie Hickey of a Red-eyed Treefrog (Agalychnis callidryas) at Vara Blanca, Heredia, Costa Rica, November 27, 2012. Click on the image to see the original)

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Dec 12 2012

What The Heck Is A Copepod?

There’s a bird I want to tell you about but his lifestyle involves words so unusual that we have to learn a new vocabulary before I can introduce him.

The bird eats copepods and is fond of polynyas.

What the heck is a copepod?

The word “copepod” actually describes the animal it names.  “Cope” is from the Greek word for “oar” and “pod” is Greek for foot.  So a copepod is literally an Oar-Foot.

Copepods are tiny, usually transparent, crustaceans with oar-like antennae. They live in wet places:  oceans, lakes, rivers, streams, swamps, bogs, and even in the water in caves.  They are very small, often microscopic, and very numerous.  There are 13,000 known species.  The vast majority live in the ocean.

And, yes, they are small, typically only 1-2 millimeters long (0.04 to 0.08 inches).  Living at the bottom of the animal food chain, they ultimately support creatures as big as whales and are the primary food source of the bird who spawned this thread.

In the Arctic, copepods are especially plentiful in polynyas, which is why the bird is fond of polynyas.

A polynya is a big hole of open water surrounded by ice.  The word comes from the Russian word for hollow.  (Click here to see two polynyas in Antarctica and a photo of their green, algae-laden water.)

Some polynyas are permanent, others are seasonal.  Off the coast of Canada, the North Water Polynya opens every spring between Ellesmere Island and Greenland.  When it does, new sunlight entering the water causes a microalgae bloom, the copepods swarm to eat it, and our mystery bird arrives to eat the copepods.

But more about him later.

(copepod photo by Ume Kils on Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

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Dec 11 2012

Free Field Guide to Jewel Beetles

Have you ever seen a colorful, shiny beetle and wondered what it was?  I have.

There’s a group of beetles called Jewel Beetles that eat trees but are very beautiful.  Among them are the rainbow green Emerald Ash Borer and (perhaps) a solid green iridescent beetle I see in the spring whom I’ve dubbed The Emerald Green Bug because I don’t have a beetle guide.

But that problem is about to be solved.

In early 2013 the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the University of Guelph Insect Collection and the Canadian Invasive Species Centre are going to publish a beautiful 411 page, 6×9″ Field Guide to the Jewel Beetles of Northeastern North America.

The guide covers 164 jewel beetles in eastern Canada and the northeastern U.S. including all of Pennsylvania.

One of the books authors, Morgan Jackson, describes the guide here on his blog and includes a cool slideshow of the emerald ash borer page.  I can tell the book is for bug lovers and entomologists yet it looks easy to use for generalists like me who are curious about the natural world.

And the book is FREE, absolutely FREE!

Click on the book cover or here to read Morgan Jackson’s blog and see if this is the book for you.  His blog tells you how to get your free copy.

I’ve already ordered mine.  Next spring I’ll know the real name of that “Emerald Green Bug.”

(cover of Field Guide to the Jewel Beetles of Northeastern North America, linked from Morgan Jackson’s blog)

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Oct 29 2012


Before the rain began on Saturday I took a walk in Schenley Park to check on the birds.

In addition to a flock of thousands of robins and starlings near Anderson Playground, I found American goldfinches foraging high in a stand of red oak trees.  They seemed to be picking things off the backs of the leaves.  At ground level I heard the sound of raindrops ticking on the dry leaf litter — but it wasn’t raining.  The goldfinches were dropping the shells.

I collected a leaf and took its picture.  Here you see the brown bumps the goldfinches were cracking open.  They look like tiny acorns.

In fact, they’re galls.  When I searched the web to identify them, I learned from the University of Minnesota’s Department of Entomology that there are more than 700 species of gall-forming insects in the US and Canada and 80% of them use oaks (read about it here).

Though I can’t tell you which species, I think these are cynipid wasp galls.

{NOTE on 12/12/12:  Today Charley Eiseman at BugTracks wrote, “I believe these are actually among the few oak galls that are not caused by cynipid wasps–they look to me like the work of Polystepha globosa, a midge (Cecidomyiidae).”     He knows much more than I do!  The news has derailed my paragraphs below about cynipid wasps, but they’re still interesting even though they don’t apply in this case.   This link has more information about the midge.}

The tiny wasps, harmless to humans, lay their eggs on oak leaves.  Their eggs emit chemicals that stimulate the leaves to grow covers around the eggs.  This protects the larvae until they’re ready to emerge — unless a goldfinch finds them.

Each species of cynipid wasp uses a different site on the oak (root, twig, leaf) and specializes in particular species of oaks.  The most amazing wasp is the one that becomes the jumping oak leaf gall.  The female lays eggs on white oak leaf buds in the spring.  When the larvae reach an active stage in early summer they jostle inside the galls and the galls fall off the leaves.  The larvae are so active that the galls jump on the sidewalk like Mexican jumping beans.   This summer they created a stir in Illinois.

Too bad these aren’t jumping oak leaf galls.

Thanks to the goldfinches I learned something new today.

(photos by Kate St. John)

6 responses so far

Oct 27 2012

But They’re Pretty

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

I had no idea Asian lady beetles came in so many colors and patterns.

Yes, they’re annoying, but in this composite close-up they’re actually pretty.

(photo by @entomart on Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

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