Bug Lady Blog – Wasp Mimics

Howdy, BugFans,

A Bug Story in Three Acts.

As the BugLady was walking through the woods at the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust Huiras Lake property in late spring, she kept scaring up skittish little “wasps” that hop-scotched from shrub to shrub ahead of her. When she finally caught up with them (too briefly), she found not wasps, but flies in the wasp/bee-mimicking syrphid/flower/hover fly family Syrphidae.

Act I – A Short Tutorial on Syrphid flies:

temnostoma syrphid15 4

It’s a large and widespread fly family whose members range from small-and-delicate to large-and-clunky honeybee mimics called drone flies. Adults feed on nectar and pollen, mostly from yellow or white flowers, and on aphid “honeydew,” and they’re considered important pollinators despite the fact that they’re not designed to carry as much pollen as either wild bees or honeybees can. Overall, they’re exquisite, and good for your garden (unless their larvae are among those that eat flower bulbs). While they are excellent flyers, adult syrphids tend to be homebodies, not straying far from good larval habitat. Intriguing side note – according to Wikipedia, “The orchid species Epipactis veratrifolia mimics alarm pheromones of aphids to attract hoverflies for pollination.

Syrphid larvae occur in a variety of habitats, including aquatic. While some species are scavengers, feeding on rotting organic materials (even within ant nests), others (despite the fact that syrphid larvae are headless and legless) are carnivores, acting as beneficial biological controls on aphids, leafhoppers, and other “pest” insects. The most famous syrphid is the rat-tailed maggot, the aquatic larva of the drone fly Eristalis tenax, which lives in shallow, murky water, breathing, as both larva and pupa, via a long respiratory “tail” that projects from its posterior and stretches up through the water’s surface film (the tail has earned them the nickname “mousies”) http://bugguide.net/node/view/815670. One source noted that some larvae use those tubes to puncture reed stems underwater and tap into the air chambers within the stem.

Act II – Meanwhile, back at Huiras Lake:

So, the small bees turned out to be syrphid flies in the genus Temnostoma (from the Greek words “Temno” and “soma” – “cut body”). There are only 10 Temnostoma species in North America, but the BugLady’s not going to venture past genus on this one – four, look-alike species live in the northeastern quadrat of North America. A European key to the genus described them as dwelling in “humid deciduous forests, where they bask on leaves and twigs and visit flowers of understory herbs.” Check.

Temnostomas are territorial and will attempt to chase larger insects. Males hang out near flowers, waiting for females; the females multitask, flying from flower to flower, feeding as they mate, with the males in tow.

Their larvae are “saprophagous,” living and feeding within decaying wood and possibly spending two winters as larvae. A report on saproxylic flies of old growth forests of Finland and Russia describe the larvae as having “huge hooks on the [barrel-shaped] thorax with which they tunnel into firm sapwood of fallen trees and branches.

Act III – The Scientific Principle du jour – Mimicry:

Just how good does a mimic have to be, anyway (subtitle – is it more important that the guy who plays Jimmy Hoffa in the movie look like Hoffa, or act like Hoffa?)?

mason wasp euodynerus11 1

Temnostoma is, at first glance, a wasp mimic, probably of the mason wasps (picture above). Look twice and you note that Temnostoma has two wings to a wasp’s four, and its antennae are short. But some syrphids don’t stop with appearance, they mimic wasp behavior, too – raising their dark-colored, front legs so they look like long antennae (a feature that’s apparently important to discriminating birds) (some syrphids do have long antennae, and they don’t do the leg-raising behavior), mock-stinging when handled, wing-wagging, eschewing the direct flight of syrphids for a wasp’s erratic patterns, and even holding their wings out in a wasp-like “V” at rest.

Have scientists studied this? Indeed, they have! The syrphids’ ploy falls in the category of Batesian mimicry, in which a harmless/palatable organism protects itself by disguising as a harmful one. A mimic may not only look, but may also sound, smell, and/or behave like its model. Adding behavioral prompts to a good visual resemblance seems like a no-brainer, but in a study of 57 syrphid species, Carleton College researchers found that behavioral copycats were not that common (only 6 of their test species, three of them Temnostoma, practiced behavioral mimicry). They questioned whether a poor visual match might be overcome by a good set of behaviors.

What did they find?

  • That to the human eye, many syrphid that are bee mimics are pretty darn good copies of their models (“high fidelity mimics”).
  • That the syrphids who develop behavioral mimicry are wasp mimics – bees don’t have the characteristic twitches that wasps have.
  • That syrphids do not develop behavioral mimicry to compensate for poor visual mimicry; the good behavioral mimics were more likely to be good (to the human eye, at least) visual/morphological matches, too.
  • Importantly, they considered what they called “the eye of the beholder” – would an insect that fooled a human also fool a serious avian predator, or do we behold them differently?
  • And they concluded by wondering why behavioral mimicry isn’t more common in visual mimics.

Read all about it at files.figshare.com/1431816/Penney_et_al__2014__Am_Nat.pdf.

In a blog entry entitled “Good mimics have the costumes and the acting skills,” one of the co-authors includes two, nice videos of the flies in action: http://katatrepsis.com/2014/01/11/good-mimics-have-the-costumes-and-the-acting-skills/.

The Eye of the Beholder?” Another research team attempted to evaluate wasp-mimicking syrphids through the eyes of a pigeon (with a nod to the fact that pigeons do not prey on syrphid flies). After pigeons were trained to recognize (peck at) images of wasps and images of non-mimetic flies, images of syrphid flies were added, with the various morphological features simplified and “optimized.”

What did the pigeons tell them??

  • Some mimics are “imperfect” mimics – Close, but no cigar. If imperfect mimics get away with it because they look realistic to their predators, what are their predators basing their decisions on?
  • The length of the antennae (or of what the pigeons thought were antennae) was important, but pigeons used it in combination with other characteristics, like the presence and number of stripes or color blocks, length of the abdomen, and width of the head.
  • Based on information from the pigeons, scientists were able to predict fairly accurately which syrphids would be considered “waspish.” While the pigeons and the scientists agreed about the authenticity of many syrphid fly “costumes,” there was one syrphid fly that the humans thought was a good mimic, but that the pigeons saw right through. And vice-versa.

Like all good studies, this one answered some questions and raised more. Read all about it at http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/274/1621/1949.

And when syrphid flies appear on the daisies at the beginning of June, dawdle a bit and enjoy them.

The BugLady

Bug Lady Blog – Sawflies Among Us

Salutations, BugFans,

 

The BugLady has been mulling over sawflies.

 

First of all – not flies.  Sawflies belong to the huge (more than 150,000 of the million-plus insect species on the planet) Ant-Bee-Wasp-Sawfly order Hymenoptera (membrane-wings) (four of them), not the fly family, Diptera (two wings).  They are sometimes called “plant wasps.”

sawfly cinn fern15 4

Here’s their taxonomic pedigree:  In descending order (from the larger groups to the smaller, more restrictive/definitive groups), sawflies are placed within a Kingdom (Animalia), then a Phylum (Arthropoda), Class (Insecta), Order, Family, Genus, and Species.  In larger bunches of insects with more complicated relationships, scientists need to set up intermediate groups (“sub-this” and “super-that” and “tribe this” and “unnamed taxon that”) within these fixed divisions to make sense of it all.

 

Sawflies are in a sub-group under Hymenoptera called Symphyta, which includes a number of different sawfly families, plus some other families of wasps that, like sawflies, don’t have wasp-like waists.  They are often described as “primitive wasps,” and, in fact, an ancient line within the Symphyta seems to be the ancestor group for the non-sawfly Hymenopterans (the ants, bees, and wasps).  “Sawfly” comes from the shape of the female’s ovipositor, which, according to one source, she carries folded up but can flip open like a jackknife, and which she uses to saw open a hole in plant tissue so she can oviposit (she can’t sting, so resembling a wasp is to her advantage).  The three sawflies in this BOTW are in the “Common/True sawfly” family Tenthredinidae (which is divided into six subfamilies, three of which are represented here).  And that’s quite enough about their taxonomy (which is, of course in a state of flux).

sawfly royal fern15 2

Second of all – there are a lot of them.  There are in the neighborhood of 90,000 (and counting) different kinds of insects in North America, and more than 1,100 of those species are in the group Symphyta (which has about 8,000 species globally).  Most North American sawflies are in the family Tenthredinidae – hence the name “Common sawflies”- and according to one source, 90% of the commonly-seen sawflies are Tenthredinids.  The colorful adults are often found on flowers, where they may eat nectar or pollen (some are carnivores/omnivores, and others eat little or nothing) and where some may be important pollinators.

 

Third, they can be pests – Sawflies have quite an internet presence because many of their larvae – selective eaters that can often be ID’d by their host plant – can be pests on a wide range of flowering and some non-flowering plants like ferns, horsetails, and mosses.

sawfly phrymatocera11 3

Sawfly larvae are free-living and caterpillar-like and can be told from butterfly/moth caterpillars because sawflies have more than five prolegs (those hydrologically-operated abdominal stubs that are tipped by grappling hooks).  The Missouri Botanical Garden website points out that like Lepidopterans, sawfly larvae have three pairs of “hardened,” true legs on the thorax, but they have more prolegs – at least enough pairs to spell “SAWFLY.”  Most larvae feed on leaves, draping or coiling the end of their body over the leaf edge, and a lot of them are skeletonizers (there are also stem and leaf miners, and gall-makers).  Toxic leaves don’t seem to deter them, and many are able to release a noxious liquid at persistent predators.  Despite that talent, and the fact that discerning a single larva within a glob of them is confusing for predators, and their disconcerting habit of rearing up the front half of their bodies into an “S” shape in unison when startled, they are fed upon by other insects and by birds, are parasitized by the larvae of a bunch of wasps, and their pupal cases are found and eaten by a variety of small mammals.  Most Tenthredinids have a single generation per year in this neck of the woods, overwintering as pupae on twigs or in leaf litter or as mature larvae that will pupate in the spring.

 

There’s some good info about sawflies in Donald W. Stokes’ excellent A Guide to Observing Insect Lives, and they’ve appeared in two previous BOTWs: https://www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/sawfly.cfm, and

https://www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/slug-sawfly-a-skeletonizer.cfm.

 

The BugLady used a shot of a sawfly ovipositing on an Equisetum (horsetail) in a recent BOTW, and last summer she found a sawfly ovipositing on ferns, and then there’s that picture of a sawfly larva on a berry that’s been nagging at her.  Some people think that when you know an organism’s name, you know everything about it, but finding out an insect’s name opens the door to finding out its story – the “what about it?”.  Alas, the names of these three sawflies are approximate, and there isn’t much information about them out there.

sawfly cinn fern15 2sawfly royal fern15 5b

The sawfly on the Royal and Cinnamon ferns is probably in the genus Strongylogaster, whose larvae famously enjoy ferns.  They were ovipositing on Royal ferns at Riveredge Nature Center, flying and perching non-stop.  The BugLady seems to recall that there was a lot of action as the plants were putting up their fertile stalks, and a little later, the sawflies moved to the related Cinnamon ferns.  Note to self: check that phenology this summer.  Several of the 11 North American species in the genus are western, and several others concentrate on bracken ferns, so this may be Strongylogaster tacita.  Here’s a generic Strongylogaster larva: http://bugguide.net/node/view/933685/bgimage.

sawfly, horsetail cb14 1

The sawfly on Field horsetail is probably in the genus Dolerus.  The offspring of at least six species in this genus feed on field horsetail (Equisetum arvense), and it looks a lot like a Dolerus sawfly on bugguide.net that is labeled “Unidentifiable beyond genus.”

 

There’s a lovely account by Edward A. Fitch (Essex, England) in the 1881 issue of “The Entomologist” about his attempts to rear sawfly larvae found in Equisetum stems.  “It is curious that until last year, the life-history of the Doleridae was quite unknown, despite the fact that we have fifty-seven European species, many of which are among our most common sunflies.  For some years, I have found a sawfly larva feeding within the stems of Equisetum, which I strongly suspected to belong to a Dolerus, but several, not very determined attempts at rearing the imagos failed……… It feeds inside the stems of Equisetum limosum, not eating through the nodes, but apparently coming out at the end and biting into the next division, just above the joint; generally, however, there is but one hole between the joints, and this mostly at the base, so probably the larva exits at the entrance hole……… My specimens hibernated in little earthen cells, quite at the bottom of the cage, which contained about six inches of earth…….. I could discover no trace of silk, or anything worthy of the name of a cocoon.”  Here’s a generic Dolerus larva – http://bugguide.net/node/view/788176/bgimage.

 

And then there’s the sawfly larva that the BugLady photographed “pre-bifocals.”  A lovely shot of Starry false Solomon’s seal berries turned out, on the monitor, to have a mystery guest clinging to a berry like a tiny limpet.  This must be one of five species in the genus Phymatocera, the only sawfly genus that feeds on False Solomon’s seal.  Here’s an adult: http://bugguide.net/node/view/524481/bgimage.  These are weak flyers that don’t expand their boundaries quickly.  Note to self – when the leaves of False Solomon’s seal start looking shredded this summer, check for photo-ops.

 

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/

Bug Lady Blog – Azalea Sphinx

Salutations, BugFans,

 

Seasoned BugFans rejoice!  A moth that you can actually see with your naked eye!  The Azalea Sphinx is a member of the Sphinx family, Sphingidae – Sphinx moths have appeared in these pages before, in the person of the White-lined, the Pandorus, the Laurel/Fawn, the Waved, the Walnut, the Five-lined, and the Hog/Virginia creeper sphinxes, as well as the Cinnamon and Bumblebee/snowberry Clearwings.  Sphinx caterpillars are called hornworms for obvious reasons (http://bugguide.net/node/view/35271/bgpage), though in some species, the horn is lost or reduced in their last instar.

 

Sphinx moth caterpillars are frequently associated with one, or a small group of host plants, for which they are often named (tobacco and tomato hornworms, big poplar, wild cherry, huckleberry, catalpa sphinx, etc.) (some are pests of agricultural or horticultural plantings), and they may have different names than their adults (when it grows up, a tomato hornworm becomes a Five-lined sphinx).  The caterpillars are responsible for the name “Sphinx” – when alarmed, they raise the front half of their body, retract their head like a turtle and pose like an (upside-down) Egyptian sphinx http://bugguide.net/node/view/1129749/bgimage  (OK – so entomologists are an imaginative bunch).  Adults may be called Hawk moths (especially in England) and hummingbird moths (for their feeding style).

 

These are big moths – some tropical species may have a seven inch wingspread.  North American sphinx moths, some of which may have four inch wingspreads, represent about one-tenth of the approximately 1,500 species worldwide.  They have chunky, scaly, spindle-shaped bodies and long, roughly triangular wings; the wings of some species are decorated with color-blocks http://bugguide.net/node/view/83168/bgimage, and even those that come in muted colors are subtly beautiful.  Many adults have strikingly-colored hind wings or abdomens that are concealed when they are at rest but are flashed in flight to startle predators http://bugguide.net/node/view/34160.  Sphinx moths are terrific flyers; their rapid wingbeats can carry them up to 12 mph, and they can also hover.

 

In spite of the fact that adults communicate using airborne chemicals (pheromones) they don’t have especially feathery antennae (she calls to him using pheromones, and in some species, he responds with pheromones of his own when he gets close).  Although many are night-flyers, they have no hearing organs/bat detectors.

 

The caterpillars can be sizeable, too (http://bugguide.net/node/view/428112/bgimage).  Some are cryptically colored, but others have a line of big, attention-getting spots along their sides (http://bugguide.net/node/view/348379).  The caterpillars of closely-related species can be hard to tell apart because they may come in different color phases, but apparently, the size, shape and color of the horn can be diagnostic.  Caterpillars turn darker as they approach pupation, and they overwinter as pupae.

 

Interesting stuff about Sphinx moths:

 

  • Many sphinx caterpillars nosh on toxic leaves.  Animals that ingest poisons either sequester them, eliminate them, or live with them.  Although some species are pretty impervious to high toxin concentrations, they also excrete them quickly; other species neutralize harmful substances like nicotine before eliminating them.  In the “If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It” department, caterpillars regurgitate the noxious contents of their foreguts on aspiring predators and parasites (although this one was unsuccessful http://bugguide.net/node/view/140259 and is parasitized by wasp larvae).  They do not, however, pass any toxicity along to their adult phase.
  • Sphinx moths not only hover, they can move side-to-side (“side-slipping” or “swing-hovering”), which might help them avoid ambushers lurking in the blossoms.
  • Sphinx moths must raise the temperature inside their thorax to about 96 degrees F in order to fly – this they do by quivering the wing muscles, causing the wings to vibrate.  The warm-up takes longer in cooler temperatures, but because of their ability to warm up, they can fly in cool/nighttime temperatures.  They also bask.
  • Adults of a few species don’t eat (they depend on energy socked away during their larval stage), but most have a proboscis that is long enough to uncurl into a tubular flower and harvest its nectar (incidentally, pollinating it).  Like their caterpillars, adults may be associated with specific flowers and be their exclusive pollinators.
  • Darwin once predicted the existence of a hitherto-unknown animal species, based on the size and shape of a tropical orchid.  “[A. sesquipetale hasnectaries 11 and a half inches long, with only the lower inch and a half filled with very sweet nectar […] it is, however, surprising, that any insect should be able to reach the nectar: our English sphinxes have probosces as long as their bodies, but in Madagascar there must be moths with probosces capable of extension to a length of between 10 and 12 inches!”  When the pollinator – a sphinx moth – was ultimately found, its subspecies name (praedicta, “the predicted one,” reflected his observation.
  • Not all sphinx moths feed on plant nectar (the Faint of Heart should turn away right about now); one species robs honeybees, but about 100 species, mostly in Southeast Asia, sip “eye secretions”.  From the Medical and Veterinary Entomology, by Mullen and Durden, we learn that “It feeds while hovering about the eyes of horses, mules, and humans.  It also has been observed inserting its proboscis between the lips and into the nostrils of humans to feed on saliva and nasal secretions.  The latter has been described as causing a tickling sensation.  Only mild discomfort is experienced when they feed on eyes.”  And yes, there is a vocabulary word for that – lachryphagous.

(OK, you can turn back now.)

 

THE AZALEA SPHINX (Darapsa choerilus) (formerly Darapsa pholus) is one of three species in its genus in the Nearctic ecozone and is found in deciduous woodlands and edges from the Great Plains, east.  Wagner, in Caterpillars of Eastern North America, says that the three Darapsas (the Azalea, the Hydrangea, and the Virginia creeper sphinx) “usually can be identified by their foodplant associations.”  Both the adult Azalea sphinx and its larva (http://bugguide.net/node/view/943281/bgimage) are similar to the related Hog sphinx, but the Azalea sphinx’s horn is straighter and bluer.

 

Because of its more-catholic-than-usual diet, the Azalea sphinx could also be called the Blueberry, Sour gum, or Viburnum sphinx, (multiple sources continued “and other host plant families” but didn’t name them).  Adults nectar on a variety of flowers, tubular and not, that are open during the evening and at night, like honeysuckle, bladder campion, EupatoriumSpiraea (and, apparently, milkweed).

 

There are probably two generations each summer here in Wisconsin (possibly eight per year along the Gulf Coast).  The young are solitary feeders that snug up against the midrib of the leaf they’re eating when at rest.  When they’re ready to pupate, they use silk to fasten a few leaves together loosely on the ground.

 

Gratuitous caterpillar picture that the BugLady wishes she had taken: http://bugguide.net/node/view/996714.

 

Unrelated Nature Note:  Although the temperatures have been in the single digits above and below zero for a few days, one BugFan has had two Yellow-rumped Warblers at her feeder.  Warblers are a largely insectivorous lot, so 99.99 of them departed for warmer climes a few months ago.  The Yellow-rumped is the hardiest because it will supplement its diet with berries (the BugLady still clings to their old name, Myrtle Warbler, because the early settlers observed these birds feeding in myrtle bushes along the seacoast).

 

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/

Bug Lady Blog – Meadow Grasshopper

Salutations, BugFans,

 

The BugLady’s usual sensory experience with grasshoppers is a small “tssssp” sound as they launch themselves out of her path and land on the undergrowth.  So – it’s a good thing that the BugLady couldn’t see this well-camouflaged Meadow Grasshopper, frozen on the tree bark (the literature says that these grass-top-perchers are skittish and are more apt to take cover behind vegetation or to drop to the ground and then tiptoe away).

 

Meadow/Marsh Meadow/Short-winged Brown grasshoppers (Chorthippus curtipennis) are the only members of their genus in the Nearctic ecozone (North and South America); the other species members inhabit the Palearctic ecozone (a large chunk of the Old World).  They are members of the Slant-faced/Tooth-legged grasshopper subfamily within the Short-horned grasshopper family, Acrididae.  Bugguide.net describes their habitat as “tall grass in damp areas” from Alaska and Canada, throughout most of the Lower 48 except for the far Southeastern states (one source said that they are the most-widely distributed of our grasshoppers).  They’re listed in a Key to Semi-Aquatic Orthoptera of Michigan; the BugLady didn’t find any mention in their biographies of interaction with water, only that they reside in periaquatic environments (“damp edge” situations that transition readily from aquatic to terrestrial and back).  Here in God’s Country, they are out and about during the daytime throughout the summer and into fall.

grasshopper meadow11 9bsm (1)

Meadow grasshoppers are brownish and typically have reddish/yellowish-brown femora (thighs) and black “knees,” and, yellow tibiae (shins).  They have, as their name suggests, slanted faces.  Like other members of their family, they have tympana (hearing organs) on the abdomen, near the attachment of the hind pair of legs.  Males are about a half-inch long, and females are about an inch; the wings of most males are as long as their abdomen, but most females’ wings about three-quarters as long.

 

Unlike other species of grasshoppers that are polyphagous (feeding on a variety of plants) (the BugLady is checking to make sure that there was no vocabulary lapse during the holidays), the Meadow Grasshopper is reputed to eat only grasses and sedges (although the very thorough biography published by the Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station suggests that the grasshopper’s complete menu isn’t known and may include “forbs, pollen, fungi, and arthropod parts.”).  By itself, it’s not considered a crop pest, but it often feeds with the more damaging red-legged and clear-winged grasshoppers.

 

Meadow grasshoppers are eaten by the usual suspects – birds, coyotes, skunks, rodents, beetles, spiders, and more (they may have been among the grasshopper species historically eaten by American Indians on the Great Plains, too), and they are afflicted by parasitoid larvae of a number of flies.

 

When a young grasshopper’s fancy turns to love, he stridulates (makes sound by friction) from a grass blade, rasping his hind legs against his wings.  If she is interested, she answers http://musicofnature.org/songsofinsects/iframes/locusts/popup_marshmeadowgh.html.  Eggs are laid in fall, in egg pods, in a hole that she excavates in the soil with her ovipositor.  The eggs enter a resting state called diapause (still checking) without hatching so that there are no energy demands from developing embryos, and (usually) the nymphs emerge late in the following spring.  These hardy grasshoppers have developed an adaptation that allows them to survive in the tundra and in mountain meadows – in cold climates they get off to a really slow start, sometimes spending three years in the egg before hatching.  Once hatched, they attain adulthood within a month.

 

Meadow grasshoppers are mostly homebodies, not venturing far from their natal fields.  They are athletic jumpers, but while males can fly for about ten feet, the females’ shorter wings render them flightless.  How do they expand into new territories?  Most don’t.  Only a small percent of meadow grasshoppers annually (about 2%) are equipped with extra-long wings and can initiate dispersal flights.

 

From the Canadian Geographic magazine’s “Fascinating Grasshopper Facts” we learn that a grasshopper’s mandibles (with which they chew from side to side) are so tough that “they are not damaged when the grasshopper is eaten by a burrowing owl. For example, when an owl eats 50 grasshoppers, almost the only grasshopper remains found in the pellet (which is coughed up by the owl after grinding and digesting the food) will be a few legs, 100 mandibles, and some other smaller grasshopper mouthparts.”

 

Here’s Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin 912: http://keys.lucidcentral.org/keys/grasshopper/nonkey/html/FactSheets/meadow.htm).

 

And here’s a key to Wisconsin grasshoppers: http://dnr.wi.gov/files/pdf/pubs/ss/ss1008.pdf

 

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/

Christmas Bird Count Flies High

Each year, Riveredge helps lead the Newburg Christmas Bird Count. Dedicated volunteers spend a day counting as many bird species and individuals as they can find in our local search area. The results are sent to the National Audubon Society who compile data from around the US for the longest running citizen science project in the country. Here’s a recap of this year’s count from Mary Holleback, our Adult Programs Manager. 

December 2015 was the warmest on record in the Milwaukee area thanks to the El Nino weather pattern affecting the entire U.S. this winter.  It was also to blame or credit for many of the unusual birds seen on December 19th during our annual Christmas Bird Count.   One such sighting in the Cedarburg area (7A) was an ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRD.  Yes!  I said hummingbird!  It’s only the second time in the 115 year history of the Wisconsin Christmas Bird Count that this western species has been documented.  The bird was reported and photographed by Dan Panetti, owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited store in Mequon.  He helped the home owner create a nectar feeder that wouldn’t freeze by modifying a heated bird bath.  Local bander, Mickey O’Connor, from the Milwaukee County Zoo banded the bird earlier in the season.  (See the January 2016 issue of the Badger Birder for more information about anna’s hummingbird sightings in WI).

Birders also saw seven bald eagles, the highest number ever, in our count circle.  Three of them (a family of two adults & one immature) were sighted feeding together on a carcass in the Little Kohler area.  Jeannie Lord, owner of Pineview Rehabilitation Center, stated that there was an active nest near the river this past summer.  The Natural Heritage Conservation Program has been conducting aerial surveys over Wisconsin for the past 42 years in search of eagle and osprey nests.  In 2015 they found a record number of 1,465 eagle nests, at least one nest in every county except Milwaukee and Kenosha.  Nationally, eagles and ospreys have made a big comeback since the use of DDT was outlawed in this country in the 1970’s.

Five melanistic mutant Chinese ring-necked pheasants were also reported in the same area.  These large pheasants with iridescent, greenish-black plumage are one of 49 species brought here from Asia and released for hunting purposes.  They survive and reproduce well in crop fields, wetlands, grasslands and brushy thickets. Look here for pictures and more information.

Fifty-nine field counters logged a cumulative 193 hours and 1,140 miles looking for birds.  While 34 feeder counters in 28 households put in a total of 46 hours documenting birds in their yards.  Eighteen households watched for two hours in hopes of adding additional species to their lists.  Due to the efforts of all of these birders we saw a total of 65 species and 15,337 individuals which was just a little below average for our count circle.

Prolonged warm weather enticed a few summer residents into staying longer.  Included in that group were: sandhill cranes (36- highest #), turkey vultures (3-highest #), great blue herons (3), northern flickers (8), American robins (149), belted kingfishers (4), chipping sparrows (2), fox sparrows (2), song sparrows (3), northern harriers (6), and northern flickers (8).

Birds were widely dispersed due to the lack of snow cover and mild temperatures.  We didn’t see any of these somewhat nomadic winter birds: common redpolls, lapland longspurs, snow buntings, or horned larks.  We did however encounter these common winter birds: two rough-legged hawks, 24 pine siskins, nine red-breasted nuthatches, seven brown creepers and three tufted titmice.

Clear blue skies made it easy for us to identify ten species of waterfowl, seven species of hawks, and six species of sparrows.  Only a single individual of each of the following species were found: wood duck, ring-necked duck, merlin, northern saw-whet owl (heard), northern shrike, and golden-crowned kinglet.

If you participated in or wish you could have participated in the Newburg Christmas Bird Count you may enjoy Cornell’s Great Backyard Bird Count being held February 12 – 15, 2016. Visit their website at birdcount.org for more information.  Then continue counting during Wisconsin’s second Breeding Bird Atlas by reporting breeding bird activities near you.  Details can be found at WSObirds.org/atlas.

Thanks to all those who participated in our annual count and start recruiting your friends to help you in the 2016 count.

Happy Birding!

Bug Lady Blog – Shadow Darner

Salutations, BugFans,

 

What better way to end the old year than with a spectacular dragonfly (charismatic megafauna), and many thanks to BugFan Freda, guest photographer.

 

The BugLady is yearning for a Shadow darner.  The books say they’re “common,” and other people are up to their ankles in them, but not the BugLady, although she scared up some big, dark darners in early fall that didn’t stick around to have their pictures taken.  She has read that Shadow darners may collect in small groups on tree trunks, but really, one would be enough.

 

Darners are large dragonflies in the family Aeschnidae.  They’re big-eyed and powerful dragonflies that are sexually dimorphic (males and females look different), and the females of many species are called polymorphic (“many forms,” because they come in several different color phases).  Mosaic darners (genus Aeshna) get their names from the blue “mosaic” patches on the abdomens of the males.  Caveat – if you’re using a camera instead of a hand lens to identify some of the mosaic darners, the ID is a “probably.”

Darner Shadow male FvdB 3

Male

Female

Female

 

Shadow darners (Aeshna umbrosa) live throughout most of North America (except the very southern edges of the US and a few Rocky Mountain states), and their range stretches well north into the boreal forests of Canada.  They’re found in a variety of wetlands, from the still waters of bogs, pools, and ditches, to slow streams.  There is an eastern subspecies (Aeshna umbrosa umbrosa) and a western one (A. umbrosa occidentalis), with slight differences in coloration (the former has small, green abdominal spots and the latter has blue ones).  See an awesome comparison of the subspecies, at https://www.flickr.com/photos/gyr/sets/72157614135970414?view=sm.

 

Overall, this is a large, brown dragonfly (some sources refer to it as “dull”) that’s around 3” long with a wingspread close to 4.”  The all-important lateral thoracic stripes are straight and generally pale, and an Ohio DNR wildlife website says that “the green mark on fore part of thorax often resembles the Nike ‘swoosh.’”  The face is pale and lacks a conspicuous black stripe across it (males may show a hairline stripe), and the male’s cerci, described as “wedge-shaped” by some references and “paddle-shaped” by others, are spine-tipped.  Females’ wings may be brown-tinted.  Some sources say that the thoracic stripes are outlined in black – not an “in flight” field mark (but see link, above).

 

As their name suggests, Shadow darners spend most of their lives in shady woods and edges, and they may fly until it’s too dark to see them (though they’re more likely to be active during the daylight when the cooler weather of fall sets in).  Shadow darners are associated with the tail end of the dragonfly season; almost three-quarters of Wisconsin sightings are in August and September, but there are May records and they are seen well into October.

 

What do bumblebees and Shadow darners have in common?  They push the limits of cold-bloodedness, remaining active in very cool temperatures, when other dragonflies are grounded.  Odonates use a variety of strategies to regulate their body temperature – passively, by basking to collect heat or assuming the obelisk position to avoid it; and actively, by contracting the wing muscles/quivering their wings while perched (“wing whirring”), to warm up the flight muscles (and therefore the thorax), and also by slowing circulation to the abdomen in order to keep heat in the thorax instead of sending it to the abdomen, where the larger surface area allows cooling).  Their colors may darken in cold weather, and dark colors absorb more radiation from the sun.  An overheated Shadow darner may immerse its abdomen in water (“water dipping”).

 

Shadow darners are agile and active flyers, scooping small, soft-bodied insects (and the occasional fellow-Odonate) out of the air into legs arranged like a basket, discarding the wings, and feeding in flight.  One source said that they consume as much as 20% of their bodily weight daily.  They sometimes form feeding swarms or join other darners in mixed swarms.  They are, in turn, fed upon by raptors, especially the smaller falcons, and by purple martins.  Ovipositing females may fall prey to frogs (one well-annotated source added predation on females by salamanders/newts, which raised the BugLady’s eyebrows.  She consulted her herp guy, and he couldn’t picture a salamander taking on a large darner, either – a salamander lucky enough to grab a dragonfly doesn’t have the equipment to process it into smaller pieces (and many salamanders are in the 3” to 4” size range, themselves) (thanks, BugFan Tom).  Naiads, like their elders, are unapologetic carnivores, feeding underwater on any aquatic invertebrate (or small tadpole, larval salamander or fish) that they can wrap their labium around, and being fed on by a variety of parasites (therefore, warns one site, do not eat dragonflies!) and by fish and birds.

 

There’s not much of a courtship, and even less of a honeymoon.  Females mate with the owner of the territory they enter (or they don’t, arching their body in the opposite direction to show lack of interest).  He takes her to a promising spot, they separate and she oviposits alone, while he guards his investment from the air.

 

Paulson, in Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East, describes the Shadow darner’s strenuous reproductive activity.  “Males fly beats up and down streams and along lake shores, with much hovering while facing the shore, even as long as 30 sec in one spot.  …..May patrol and defend entire small pond, usually for a period of less than 1 hour, and typically move from one patrol area to another, often at different water bodies.  …Females oviposit on logs and twigs in water or on moist tree trunks or earth banks, sometimes well above water and even in rather dry situations.  Less likely to use living plants than most other darners.  Perhaps because of woody oviposition substrates, females much more likely than other mosaic darners to break off cerci as they mature.”  See https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/category/darners/ for a picture of an ovipositing female that didn’t get the “living plants” memo.

 

In cooler climes, eggs hatch the following spring – and in cooler climes, naiads may overwinter until the year after that, emerging in early summer.

 

Interesting Shadow darner factoid:  Shadow darner naiads are sometimes introduced into rice fields as a biological control of mosquitos (a task at which their elders excel when both the dragonflies and the mosquitoes emerge from water into adulthood).

 

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/

You covered this boy in mud!

Meet The Staff

We’ve got an awesome crew of individuals at Riveredge working to help bring the great outdoors to families, schools, and neighborhoods, and we want to let you know a little more about them. In this edition of our new feature, Meet The Staff, find out who believes in ghosts, who grew up going to Riveredge, and whose pump up song is the Packer Rock Anthem.

Cassie Bauer
Family and Community Programs Manager

What do you do at Riveredge?  I am an instrument of collaborations, connections, and community engagement. I work to welcome all families from surrounding communities to the wealth of programs at Riveredge. Coordinating seasonal family festivities that are organically awesome (such as Fall Family Festival, Frog Fest, and Handmade for the Holidays) are my forte! I am quick to high five local scout groups for their achievements, create a clamor about a birthday celebration, and extend a hand to other community entities committed to the health, development, and merriment of local families and the environment.

What is your favorite spot at Riveredge? The Milwaukee River is certainly my favorite spot at Riveredge. The hike along the River here is one of my favorite and the river is so dynamic. The river is so peaceful and holds so many opportunities to spend quality time in the wild. It is a great spot to see bald eagles flying over, crayfish scurrying under rocks, and kids cross to Trailblazer Island!

What’s one thing most people don’t know about you? I believe in ghosts. 

What words do you try to live your life by? “We do not inherit the earth from our
ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” – Cree Proverb

Pam Uhlein
Seasonal Naturalist

What do you like most about Riveredge? I grew up going to Riveredge and so I love rediscovering the land which has changed SO much over the years. It’s beauty has matured and deepened tremendously. I also really enjoy getting to know the staff and volunteers — there is such a tangible feeling of community at Riveredge!

What do you like to do outside of work? I grew up in Wisconsin but just moved back after being gone for 20 years. So, I love to explore my new/old state and find beautiful spots where I can hike and explore with my family. I’m also one of those strange people who love winter and SNOW – I especially like to cross country ski and go animal tracking. Also high on the list are trail running, traveling, and cooking yummy meals after all that fun outside.

What did you want to be when you grew up?  Exactly what I am today!

Who’s your favorite Disney character? Ms. Price in Bedknobs and Broomsticks — she was one heck of a creative problem solver!

Carly Swatek
Educational Technology and Evaluation Specialist

What do you do at Riveredge? My role at Riveredge is that of a “princess of gadgetry to enhance learning and measure social change”. Like many of the educators at Riveredge, I teach programs to area schools, children, and families, but during the other half of my day, I specialize in experimenting with new technology that will innovate and expand our already-high quality educational programming.

What do you like to do when not at Riveredge? It would be accurate to call me a “horse fanatic.” Outside of work, I have the fortunate privilege to live on a horse farm with my boyfriend and Golden Retriever named Hoover.

What’s a quote you try to live your life by? I heard a quote recently from Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farm that resonated with me. He said, “a society is only as healthy as the first ten inches of its topsoil.” There is no better way to link the story of environmentalism and land stewardship than through our stomachs.

What is your go to pump up song? Packer Rock Anthem.

Bug Lady Blog – Winter Crane Fly

Salutations, BugFans,

 

Mild weather has kept insects flying/crawling late into fall this year (some of those anonymous, tan “winter moths” have been decorating the front porch).  This Winter Crane fly was photographed one balmy evening in the fourth week of November.

cranefly wntr15 3

Winter crane flies (family Trichoceridae), like Phantom crane flies (family Ptychopteridae) are not-too -distantly related to the common (and often much larger) crane flies in the family Tipulidae.  Trichoceridae is a small family with just under 200 species worldwide, and of the 27 or 28 species in North America, all except two or three are in the genus Trichocera (as one source points out, because species IDs depend on hand lenses and tiny legs and wings, bugguide.netdoes not differentiate among species photos within the genus Trichocera).

 

They are variously called winter gnats, winter midges, and winter crane flies (quick reminder – according to convention, in the names of the true flies (order Diptera) (“two wings”) the word “fly” is a separate word.  Deer fly.  House fly.  In non-Dipteran families, it’s usually part of a compound word – dragonfly, mayfly, dobsonfly, scorpionfly, firefly, etc.).  Though they’re very similar to Tipulids, winter crane flies have ocelli (simple eyes) on the top of the head that monitor light/dark http://fineartamerica.com/featured/winter-crane-fly-matthias-lenke.html, and the pattern of veins in their wings is different.  WCFs are about half-again as large as mosquitoes.

 

Besides the BugLady’s front porch, WCFs perch inside the mouths of caves, mines, hollow trees, and decaying logs in cool/temperate climates.  Many species of WCFs overwinter as adults in sheltered nooks and crannies and are abroad in the chilly (but not freezing) air of early spring and late fall – even during mid-winter thaws, when they may be seen walking on snow.  Other Trichocerids prefer “normal” insect temperatures.  Males form mating swarms, bobbing up and down a few feet off the ground.  In 1984, scientists Pratt and Pratt reported that “swarms of males are seen dancing in the late afternoon sunlight, sometimes thousands of individuals in hundreds of swarms over many acres of lawns and open woodlands.”  Females fly less, but they will join the dance to find a mate before returning to the ground to lay eggs.

 

While the larvae of many Tipulid crane flies are aquatic, winter crane fly larvae (maggots) are generally found in damp-ish situations with organic decay – under leaf litter, in fungi, caves, manure, rodent burrows, and sometimes in stored root vegetables.  There, they scavenge on rotting plant matter and sometimes on animal material like dung and carrion (the BugLady found a couple of “teasers” about Trichocerid larvae being used in forensic investigations but could discover no details).  The larvae pupate in the ground and, according to http://somethingscrawlinginmyhair.com/2013/10/23/winter-crane-flies/, the pupa moves to the surface before the adult emerges (yes, some “rigid” some pupal cases are mobile – see https://www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/pupalcases.cfm).

cranefly wntr15 2rz

Adults are said by most sources to eat nothing (there’s precious little fly food available during their flight periods), but they’ve been collected at molasses traps, which suggests otherwise.  They provide a nice (little) morsel of protein for birds in winter, and the BugLady found a nifty paper about the importance of WCFs and Tipulid crane flies in the winter diet of horseshoe bats in Great Britain.

 

An odd lifestyle – trading the joys of eating for the joys of a relatively short, potentially predator-free life in the cold, but it’s worked for WCFs for about 180 million years (see pictures of some fossil WCFs at http://sciencythoughts.blogspot.com/2014/06/winter-crane-flies-from-middle-jurassic.html).

 

And a Scanning Electronic Microscope (SEM) image at: http://images.sciencesource.com/preview/15531503/JA5576.html

 

Kate Redmond, The BugLady

Bug of the Week archives:
http://www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/

You are rockstars.

THE LOW DOWN

Riveredge had a big goal this #GivingTuesday to help fund some big plans to expand our natural playground, buy a new fleet of kayaks to get folks out on the water, sustain our sturgeon reintroduction project, and continue putting a Scientist in Residence in the West Bend School District focused on expanding outdoor learning for students.

We had a big goal. And the Riveredge community came through BIG. We met our goal thanks to contributions from a huge range of people- including many new donors to Riveredge.

You helped prove what nature has long shown us- when individuals work together, incredible things can happen. 

Thanks to you the movement to bring the great outdoors to families, schools, and neighborhoods continues strong. You are rockstars!