Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Milkweed program - Wednesday, July 8, Grange Insurance Audubon Center, Columbus.

North America's most iconic butterfly, a Monarch, refuels on nectar during its long journey south. This shot was taken last fall in a planted prairie that was nothing but turf grass three years ago. It now serves as a valuable way station for migrating Monarchs, and scores of other pollinators. This highly urban prairie patch will figure into the tale I'll tell next Wednesday evening.

The downward spiral of the Monarch has brought milkweed plants into a limelight they've never enjoyed before. That's because milkweeds serve as the host plants for the butterfly above - the only plants that the butterfly's caterpillars can eat. Nurseries can hardly keep the stuff in stock. The people have spoken - they want to protect Monarchs. Milkweeds are their ammo.

But milkweeds do FAR more than just service Monarchs. This Butterfly Milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa, is awash in Spicebush Swallowtails, with a few Great Spangled Fritillaries thrown in for good measure.

Next Wednesday evening, commencing at 7 pm., I am giving a talk entitled Milkweeds, Monarchs, and More at the fabulous Grange Insurance Audubon Center near downtown Columbus. CLICK HERE for details. It's free, and all are welcome.

The "and More" part of my talk title will be lived up to. Milkweeds host many other animals, a number of which only use these plants, such as this amorous pair of Red Milkweed Beetles. I will share many milkweed species, one of which is a stunning, state-endangered moth.

The bizarre spidery maroon flowers of a strange vining milkweed, Angle-pod, Matelea obliqua, a rarity in Ohio. It is the only representative of its genus in Ohio.

A whopping big milkweed is the Poke Milkweed, Asclepias exaltata. In sum, there are thirteen species of Asclepias milkweeds in Ohio, and it is a varied lot. However, to a plant they are all beautiful, and incredibly valuable to wildlife.

While showy butterflies garner the lion's share of attention when it comes to milkweed visitors, the plants probably attract more moths. We just don't notice, since many of their visits take place under cover of darkness. This tiny species is a Buck's Plume Moth, and they love milkweed nectar. They're so tiny as to be dismissed as a gnat or mosquito, if noticed at all.

Successful milkweed pollination is synced to powerful bumblebees; lesser creatures beware. This small wasp learned the hard way the perils of entering the sphere of a milkweed flower. It became entrapped, and perished.

I'm going to range through the interesting links between milkweeds and humans, show the varied species and what makes them tick, and discuss some of the fascinating animals whose fortunes are tied, in some cases inextricably, to milkweeds. And end it all with a cool example of something that anyone with a small plot can do to make the world a better place with milkweeds and prairie plants.

Hope you can make it! Again, CLICK HERE for details.

Monday, June 29, 2015

A gorgeous prairie - in no time flat!

A lush prairie, teeming with colorful native wildflowers, stands in stark contrast to a lawn of empty emerald turf grass.

In 2012, I had had quite enough of looking out my office window and gazing onto a field of turf grass. For those of us into biodiversity, few substrates short of cement or tarmac could be more boring. So, I acted. I caught the ear of the people who manage our complex and its grounds, and in relatively short order a meeting was convened. Aided and abetted by some like-minded friends who also work at our Ohio Department of Natural Resources central office complex, we laid out our case for botanical diversification.

The powers-that-be were quite receptive, and now, at least on a third-acre or so, we have a vastly richer environment. I wrote a bit about this prairie's beginnings RIGHT HERE. I cannot thank the building and grounds managers enough for letting us act on this idea. Bob Kehres at Ohio Prairie Nursery was integral to the project, both in providing expertise and seed sources.

So, back in 2012 the entire area in the photo above was nothing but close-cropped turf grass. We planted in the spring of 2013, and saw results that very first year. The fledgling prairie was sparser in its inaugural year, but lots of colorful annuals sprang forth, beautifying our creation. Last year was better. More plants of more species emerged, and the overall vegetation grew thicker. Things were looking good.

I took the three photos in this post today, in between showers. I've been trying to thoroughly photo-document the prairie's progress, both in overall scope and in regards to the legions of insects and other animals that now use the site. The explosion of biodiversity has been fairly stupefying.

To me eye, that colorful patchwork of prairie is far showier than the lawn that preceded it. And it's a lot less maintenance. No mowing required. The first two years, some weeding was necessary to control some weedy species that in many cases were probably in the seedbank. This year, the prairie's third growing season, the amount of undesirable nonnative plants was probably two-thirds reduced from last year. The tough prairie plants are taking hold and outcompeting them. Before long, maintenance will mostly consist of just mowing the site once in early spring, prior to the growing season, and not much more.

Even though I've been there to watch our prairie mature, it still blows my mind that it could look like this in such short order. And it'll only get better. Both this year, and in the years to come. In general, prairies are at their showy best in July, so in the next few weeks it'll color up even more as more species come into bloom. As you might imagine, the flowering plant diversity attracts scores of pollinators and other interesting and valuable insects. An Indigo Bunting has even staked his claim on this prairie the past two years. We never had one stick around before. I should note that our office complex is in as urban an area of Columbus as one can find.

If you read this blog, you'd probably be interested in doing something like this too. I'm sure some of you already have. Here's a great tip to jumpstart your venture into native flora: Visit the Midwest Native Plant Conference in Dayton, Ohio on Saturday, July 25th. An impressive array of plant vendors will be present, peddling the coolest native flora imaginable. CLICK HERE to find a list of just some of the species that will be for sale. All are welcome, and pass the word.

If everyone planted a prairie, the world would inarguably be a better place.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

An underwater caterpillar!

Were you seeking caterpillars, this wooded riparian corridor would be a great place to do so. Those of us that hunt caterpillars would likely follow in the footsteps of the birds, and search the foliage of streamside shrubs, trees, and various herbaceous growth.

Who would think to wade on in, and check submerged rocks for caterpillars?!

Here is the protagonist of this bizarre story, the showy little Two-banded Petrophila, Petrophila bifascialis. I first got turned onto these cool moths by David Wagner. He then astounded me by claiming that the moth is a jumping spider mimic! Yes, you read it right - a jumping spider mimic!

The moth is not even the size of your thumbnail, so we're talking pretty dinky here. Note the summit of the hindwings. They glisten with small colorful dots. Seen from the right angle, especially from the rear, those can look remarkably similar to colorful spider eyes.

But the real proof lies on the moth's mode of locomotion. CLICK HERE for an amazing video of this species, taken in Ohio by David and Laura Hughes.

Anyone familiar with the jerky rapid hopping gait of a jumping spider will quickly see the astonishing similarity in how the moth moves. Other species of moths do the same, and the aforementioned David Wagner and colleagues proved that they actually are mimicking jumping spiders. In the following video, they've put a metalmark moth (one of the other spider mimic moths) in a box with a real jumping spider. The moth's movements and bold displays of its eyespots spook the spider into submission. CLICK HERE to see for yourself.

Why would a moth evolve such a fabulous mimicry? No doubt because jumping spiders are voracious and abundant predators of small insects, including moths. If you rest on the upper surface of a leaf during the day, chances are good that sooner or later a patrolling jumper will come along and try to make a meal of you. But it's a lot less likely it actually will if you look like a bigger, badder jumper.

Well, this tale gets even weirder. At the recent Mothapalooza, Laura Hughes was kind enough to bring along some of the caterpillars of the Two-banded Petrophila moth. Laura is an aquatic ecologist with the Ohio EPA, and spends much time in streams. She also knows more about aquatic entomology than anyone I have ever met. Anyway, I had asked her if she'd capture a few Petrophila larvae the next time she encountered some, and let me make photos.

Voila! That's the beast above. While it may look large in the photo, it's really just a quarter-inch or so in length. The Petrophila caterpillar spins a tubular silken case on the rock, which is submerged in the shallows, and rasps algae from the rock's surface. The threadlike hairs are not hairs at all - they are filamentous gills that allow the caterpillar to harvest oxygen from the water.

Apparently the adult female moths will even dive into the water to deposit eggs on submerged rocks. While I'm sure there are underwater predators that occasionally take these caterpillars, they are certainly much safer from the legion of terrestrial predators such as birds, parasitoid wasps and flies, and other predatory insects.

You just can't hardly make this stuff up.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Dueling blackbirds

The view from the observation tower at Glacier Ridge Metropark, just west of Columbus. This, for me, is a local hotspot, being only 10-15 minutes from home, depending on traffic. But as is so often the case, I all too often shun local patches for places further afield and seemingly more exotic. Well, the deluges finally blew out last Saturday night and Sunday dawned with the promise of a dry day. I only had the morning to shoot, so what the heck thought I, I'll see what Glacier Ridge has to offer.

A lot, as it turned out. I scarcely left the meadow I started in, and within two hours tallied about 55 species, including some goodies. Nearly the first bird out of the chute was a Blue Grosbeak, singing away. That's a rarity in my neck of the woods. A platoon of Bobolinks gurgled their R2-D2-like melodies, and the dry trill of a Grasshopper Sparrow added ambience. Competing Willow Flycatchers loudly upchucked their sneezy FITZ-BEWS! Row houses of bluebird condos sported lots of Tree Swallows, which constantly issued pleasing liquid gurgles, and of course the Eastern Bluebirds provided pleasant husky warbles.

I threw the camera rig together, and stalked the perimeter of the meadow to see what I could photograph.

Before I even got out of the parking lot, my attention was drawn to the loud cheery whistles of an Eastern Meadowlark, teed up on an oak sapling. I greatly enjoy these quailish blackbirds, and began to move in his direction in the hope of obtaining some shots. Shortly after locking him in the Canon's sights, to my surprise a Red-winged Blackbird flew in and nearly landed on the lark. The shot above was taken right after the red-wing alit, and the meadowlark seems to be looking askance at the interloper.

Best as I could tell, the red-wing was only a foot or so away from the meadowlark, and just behind it from my perspective. That's why I could only get decently sharp images of the lark, as that's where I wanted my focus to be.

The meadowlark wasted no time in showing the red-wing who the king of the flutelike whistle is. While the lark had been singing before the blackbird arrived, its appearance seemed to prod him to greater musical heights. Senor red-wing listens, but does not seem impressed.

Once the lark clammed up, the red-wing puffed out his scarlet epaulets and let loose with a throaty CONK-AH-REE-ONK! It was as if he was telling lemon-boy who's the boss in this meadow.

Well! That last red-wing aria seemed to ruffle the meadowlark's feathers a bit, and moments after I took this shot he fluttered from the tree. While the dueling blackbirds' performance didn't last long, I was glad to be there to enjoy the interaction.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Some more Mothapalooza highlights

A Rosy Maple Moth, Dryocampa rubicunda, glares menacingly at your blogger. Well, as menacingly as a pink and yellow animal can manage.

Our extreme mothing efforts at the recent Mothapalooza conference paid great dividends. Scads of species great and small were seen, and in most cases, photographed. I'll share a smattering of my efforts here.

By the way, dates have been confirmed for Mothapalooza IV. The conference will be back at Shawnee State Park Lodge, August 5 thru 7, 2016. The later date will provide a somewhat different cast of moth characters, and the crop of caterpillars will be much advanced. You won't want to miss it. The link to the Mothapalooza website is RIGHT HERE.

This is one of our largest moths, the Royal Walnut Moth, Citheronia regalis. Its larva IS the biggest caterpillar, the fabled Hickory Horned Devil, which is nearly the size of a small hotdog. I have written about them HERE, and HERE.

The giant silkmoths, such as this, always elicit oohs and aahs. But cool as the jumbo silks are, one soon learns that many of the smaller - often MUCH smaller - moths best them in ornateness.

An extravagant animal indeed, and its beauty is reflected in the name: Glorious Hybrosyne, Habrosyne gloriosa. One never seems to see many of these, but a few made their way to our sheets, generating lots of excitement.

This one looks like an artist took a pen to its wings, and drew crazy op art. It's a Zebra Conchylodes, Conchylodes ovulalis. The subjects of this photo and the last were shot in situ; on the white illuminated sheets to which they were drawn. I refer to such backdrops as "white sheets of death" when it comes to making photographs, and only fire off shots under such conditions when I don't think there's any other way I'll get an image. In my view, it's impossible to get a really stunning photo on such substrates.

We have discovered a nearly infallible rule to handling moths. If they're small and/or smooth, you cannot manipulate them. Touch one like this and its off like a rocket. However, the fuzzier and/or larger the moth, the easier they are to handle and move to better backdrops. Most of the following images' subjects were placed on nearby objects that provided for a much better image than a brightly lit white sheet.

This little moth is truly fuzzy, as is its caterpillar. It's a Black-waved Flannel Moth, Lagoa crispata. The larva looks a bit like a turtle covered in brown shag carpet, and it can deliver a punishing sting via sting hairs.

From a photographer's perspective, moths are fun to explore from different angles. Certain ones, such as this, lend themselves well to head-on views. Black-waved Flannels, like so many of the exceptionally fuzzy species, are usually quite easy to handle and move around.

This Eastern Tent Caterpillar Moth, Malacosoma americanum, looks a bit like a charging bighorn sheep. In its larval stage, this moth is much derided. They're the caterpillars that form the large conspicuous silken nests on cherry trees in the spring.

A Rose Hooktip, Oreta rosea, stunning in colors of lemon and peach. Their caterpillars feed on native viburnums such as Arrowwood, Viburnum dentatum.

Ah! A personal favorite, and a stellar bark mimic if there ever was one (and there are lots)! It's a Common Lytrosis, Lytrosis unitaria, and it looks as if it was artfully carved from wood.

Here we have camouflage taken to the ultimate. The sneakiest turkey hunter clad in the best ghillie suit couldn't hope to match this. It is a White-blotched Heterocampa, Heterocampa umbrata, and even though the moth fills the frame and the image is tack sharp, it is tough to see. Such cryptic coloration and patterning serves these moths well as they hide from birds and other predators during the day.

One that was new to me, the Small Necklace Moth, Hypsoropha hormos. With some 2,500 moth species in Ohio, bagging lifers isn't too hard for most of us. Its caterpillar nosh on persimmon and sassafras.

I had to violate my "white sheet of death" rule to make this image of a moth known as The Chevron, Eulithis testata. Being small and smooth, we would have had little chance of successfully relocating it. However, by getting my camera near the sheet and shooting sideways at the moth's level, it mitigated some of the sheet glare. Note how the moth holds its abdomen arched up and over its head. That's probably disruptive camouflage, helping it to blend in with the twigs and branches it probably hides on during the day.

Many of us reminisced on good memories afield with Dennis Profant whenever we saw slug moths, which were probably his favorite group of Lepidopterans. This one is a Spiny Oak Slug Moth, Euclea delphinii. Its caterpillar is incredible. CLICK HERE for a post that I made on slug moth caterpillars, which includes an image of this species' caterpillar.

Finally, the strange little Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth, Lithacodes fasciola. It and most of its slug moth ilk are small enough to be overlooked among the comparative giants of the moth world. But one of the great pleasures of mothing is learning to pay close attention to the little guys, which often are the showiest animals on the sheet.

Put Mothapalooza on your calendar for next year. If you like natural history in all its varied forms, you'll like Mothapalooza.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Some Mothapalooza highlights, Part 1

The Tuliptree Silkmoth, Callosamia angulifera, is an impressive beast indeed, and attendees of the recent Mothapalooza conference saw many of them. And scores of other moths, of a great many species. As nearly all of the 175 or so conferees were armed with cameras, the total number of photos taken over the weekend was stupefying. I managed to click off a number of shots as well, and will share some of the mothian highlights in the next post. But for now, a pictorial recap of a few non-moth critters that were encountered.

Butterfly milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa, bustles with Spicebush Swallowtails and Great Spangled Fritillaries. If you want a gorgeous plant that is highly attractive to the fluttery crowd, this is it. Butterfly milkweed was nearing peak bloom during Mothapalooza, and a number of the daytime field trips made a point of loitering near the plants and tallying lots of butterflies.

Banded Hairstreaks, Satyrium calanus, were out in good numbers. Hairstreaks are thumbnail-sized bits of lepidpoteran magic, and sightings are highly coveted by butterfliers. This one was smitten with the turquoise shirt of a field tripper. Normally I prefer shooting subjects on natural substrates, but was struck by the color montage of the butterfly, the shirt, and the clear blue sky in the backdrop.

Candice Talbot, a moth expert from Canada and one of our field station leaders, really wanted to see a black widow spider. It didn't take me long to find one for her. This is a female Northern Black Widow, Latrodectus variolus, guarding her egg case. It is a stunningly beautiful spider, and despite the widows' fearsome reputation, they have always struck me as retiring and passive.

The ponds scattered throughout Shawnee State Forest typically have marshy verges and aquatic plants in the shallows, and can teem with damselflies and dragonflies. This is one of the tiniest of that crowd: A female Fragile Forktail, Ischnura posita. They are easily overlooked as they flutter through sedges and grasses, picking truly Lilliputian prey from the foliage. This one has captured a nymph of some sort of planthopper. The victim is so small that it couldn't be recognized at all with the naked eye.

We all kept a sharp eye out for the larval stages of moths (and butterflies), the caterpillars. This extraordinary animal is an Eight-spotted Forester, Alypia octomaculata. It is one of many insects that requires plants in the grape family for nutrition. If all goes well, this caterpillar will become a showy black and white moth.

Caterpillars face legions of enemies, few of them fiercer than this large beetle, the Fiery Searcher, Calosoma scrutator. These largely nocturnal beetles are large and speedy, and race about the trees seeking caterpillar victims, and other lesser insects. We had quite a few visit the mothing sheets, which is a double-edged sword. On the plus side, they are beautiful and not often seen. To the negative end, they sometimes eat the interesting moths lured to the sheet. At one point, a Fiery Searcher invaded one of our sheets, and unerringly navigated towards a moth known as a sack-bearer, the only one on the sheet and one of few seen during Mothapalooza. It then quickly made mincemeat of the sack-bearer.

I'll devote the next post to moths, and only moths, that were observed during Mothapalooza.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Mothapalooza III concludes, and it was grand!

A giant banner strung across the entryway to the Shawnee State Park lodge in southern Ohio proclaims the arrival of Mothapalooza. It may also have scared off the non-moth'ers, or at least made them stare in befuddled wonderment, pondering whether they should enter the building.

Mothapalooza is, insofar as we know, the largest and most complex event that celebrates the diversity and ornate complexity of the world of moths. A few of us hatched this scheme about four years ago, and we held Mothapalooza I in 2013. It, to our absolute amazement, drew about 140 attendees, plus a whole host of invited experts and guides. Mothapalooza II, held last year at Burr Oak State Park, was also a similar-sized sellout. Last weekend saw Mothapalooza back at Shawnee, and in total there were about 175 people.

I think moth'ers from about eleven states were present. I can think of these offhand: Ohio, New York, Indiana, Missouri, Texas (yes, Texas!), Kentucky, West Virginia, Delaware, Connecticut, Illinois, Pennsylvania and I'm sure I'm forgetting some. The common denominator was an interest - for many, a passion! - for the fluttery crowd. Mothapalooza's popularity is clear evidence of the interest in wildlife diversity, even forms of wildlife that are generally not thought of as drawing crowds. We, the organizers, are pleased by the local economic stimulus that such an event provides. We booked the entire resort for this - all rooms, all cabins, everything - and filled it. Many rooms were booked in nearby Portsmouth as well, to accommodate overflow. We rented lots of vehicles to shuttle participant's to field trip sites as well. We didn't attempt to track economic input from this weekend-long event but it certainly was into the tens of thousands of $$$.

The moth crowd packs the lodge's back patio for the Saturday evening dinner. The logistics of organizing such an affair so that it runs smoothly is a ton of work. The Mothapalooza team included about 40 volunteers who orchestrated everything from transportation to vendors to field trips to speakers to lots of other things. Acting, quite ably I might add, as Mothapalooza CEO for the third year was Mary Ann Barnett. What great work she does, and anyone who has been involved in a large complex conference knows the skill set that is necessary to bring something like this off without hitches.

I want to thank everyone who played any sort of role in helping. I hesitate to name names, as I'm certain to forget key people, as there are so many. But I will mention a few. Our Mothapalooza planning committee was Olivia Kittle, Judy Ganance, Elisabeth Rothschild, John Howard, Diane Brooks, Scott Hogsten. the aforementioned Mary Ann and myself. Most of us have been through the entire suite of Mothapaloozas and it's a great team. Thanks to everyone of them, and the crew of other volunteers who make Mothapalooza possible.

I especially wish to thank our sponsors, and foremost among them was the Ohio Division of Wildlife. The DOW is certainly one of the leading natural resources agencies in the country when it comes to supporting wildlife diversity in all of its varied forms. CLICK HERE to see proof of this. The other formal sponsors included the Cedar Bog Association, Crane Hollow Preserve, The Wild Ones, Ohio Lepidopterists, Midwest Native Plant Conference, National Wildlife Federation, Flora-Quest, National Moth Week, Ohio Prairie Nursery, and Monarch Pathways. The Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy offered much support as did the Cincinnati Museum. They jointly own and manage the Edge of Appalachia Preserve, which played a big part in our field trip sites.

Our Mothapalooza field trips are rather strange. Maybe not so much the Saturday daytime trips, one of which is shown above. The gentleman in the center, pointing with cap on, is none other than Dr. David Wagner, legendary entomologist at the University of Connecticut and author of the Caterpillars of Eastern North America. Dave's been to all of the Mothapaloozas and his presence greatly improves the event. This year, we had another piece of heavy artillery in the form of Dr. Douglas Tallamy of the University of Delaware. Doug is very well known in large part because of his ground-breaking book Bringing Nature Home. What a treat is was to have Dave and Doug as the evening keynote speakers.

The Shawnee State Forest and nearby Edge of Appalachia Preserve is a region lush in diversity of flora and fauna. We found lots of it. Eight or so trips radiated out through the region, visiting all manner of habitats and locating scores of interesting things. But these daytime trips did not commence until 10 am - quite tardy indeed for veteran explorers of nature! But we had a good excuse for sleeping in. Our nocturnal mothing forays did not begin until nearly 10 pm, and most people did not return from those until 2 or 3 am, with some fanatics staying out later than that!

Mothapalooza raises funds to give back to nature, usually to a group such as The Nature Conservancy. We want to support land acquisition, which is one of the highest and greatest things that anyone interested in the environment can help with. But this year, we deviated from that mission and instead gave $5000.00 to the newly established Dennis Profant Scholarship Fund, administered by Hocking College. Dennis was a topnotch biologist, a bona fide moth authority, and big supporter of Mothapalooza. His passing last April was tragic and far too soon. I wrote about Dennis RIGHT HERE.

We also funded three outstanding young luminaries in the field of natural history to attend Mothapalooza. Your narrator and Mary Ann Barnett bookend (from left) Candice Talbot from Ontario, Canada; Alexandra Forsythe from Indiana; and Jacob Gorneau from New York. All are brilliant, passionate, and totally committed to natural history, and we hope to have a long relationship with each. If only they could be cloned and spread about the world.

The primary field trips took place under cover of darkness. We are fortunate to have some of the greatest lepidopteran experts in the area working with us, and setting up lighted moth sheets far and wide. Mothing stations were scattered around Shawnee, and several were near the Eulett Center at the Edge of Appalachia Preserve.

Mid-June is a spectacular time for moth abundance and diversity and we hit it out of the park this weekend. Or I should say, the moths did. Incredible numbers came to most mothing stations; so many in fact that moths were landing on any available surface near the sphere of lights, including wires, trees, tripods, and people.

This short video, taken with the I-Phone's cool slo-mo video feature, offers a glimpse into the action around a moth-packed sheet. By sheer luck, a moth flies into the camera's field and across the video as I panned, creating a strange effect.
Becky Dennis poses with two of the giant silkmoths, a Luna on the left, and a Polyphemus on the right. The big silkmoths are always crowd-pleasers and we had lots of them this year, of a dozen or so species. Tons of sphinx moths as well, and scores of other exotic insects.
In my next post, I'll share some of the cool creatures that we ran across during Mothapalooza III.