Thursday, August 21, 2014

A tiny damsel, larger than life

I took a brief stroll around the work campus this afternoon, between showers. As is almost always the case, I had my camera in tow. The lenses vary, but this time the mega-macro Canon MP-E 65 lens was bolted to the Canon 5D Mark III. I wrote in some detail about this awesome niche lens HERE. The MP-E is not normally my default lens for traipsing about, as it does limit one's options. I like to have it in the pack and close at hand, but have some other more versatile lens attached to the camera.

However, time was tight, and I had decided to just seek macro material on this brief foray. I struck Odonate gold when I spotted a tiny Fragile Forktail, Ischnura posita, resting on a leaf just off the path. This damselfly is truly Lilliputian; perhaps only the Eastern Red Damselfly, Amphiagrion saucium, can lay claim to such minuteness among our damsel fauna. One might pass off a Fragile Forktail as a strange small fly or some other inconsequential bug without a good look.

The forktail gave me one chance for a shot, and it appears above. The flashes spooked it further into the foliage, and that was that. But this image is not bad, and may help allay some criticism of the difficulty of using the MP-E 65 lens in the field, and without a tripod. As small as this damselfly is, it can barely be squeezed into the MP's field of view, even at its lowest magnification. This shot is slightly cropped; on the original, much of the abdomen was visible, but not the terminal end - it was out of the field of view. Had I had more time to compose, I could have got it all in the image (barely), but I wanted the head shot and was focused on that. You can even make out tiny orangish mites - one between the eyes, one on the lateral black stripe, and a few on the underside of the thorax. With some slight tweaks in Photo Shop, which I have yet to do, the exposure will be picture-perfect.

The MP-E 65 lens has no focus ring - the photographer just moves the camera until the subject comes into focus. Turning the ring on the lens increases magnification, all the way to an amazing 5x power. It is like looking through a microscope. I find I can handhold the rig without undue difficulty at 1x or even 2x; anything beyond that requires some sort of stabilization. An issue with shooting unrestrained live animals such as this damselfly is the very close working distance required with this lens. The front of the lens was probably six inches or less from the damsel when I made the image, and a lot of critters won't put up with that sort of intrusion. If they will, the photographer can bag some incredible images, far beyond what even an extremely capable macro lens such as Canon's 100 mm L-series can produce.

I've only had a few weeks practice with this lens, but am honing in on its sweet spots. The best setting I've found thus far is: ISO - 100; aperture of f/16; 1/200 shutter speed. Flash is essential and the rig to have is Canon's twin lite flash setup, where the flashes are mounted on a ring at the end of the lens. The flash commander mounted on the hotshoe is set to ETTL mode, and communication between flash and camera is generally excellent. The twinlite flashes also have small pre-lights mounted on them, which can be activated with a quick double-tap of the camera's shutter release button. Those lights allow the photographer to easily see the subject and compose the image before firing the shot. Pre-lighting is often helpful, even essential, as the tiny aperture of the MP-E 65 lens lets very little light in and thus one's view through the view finder is often very dim.

If you are a serious macro photographer, I would highly recommend this lens. Of course (and I have no relationship with Canon!), you must shoot a Canon body. No other manufacturer, insofar as I know, makes a comparable lens.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Some more (extremely cool) wasps

I'm on a bit of a wasp jag, but so be it. Wasps are awesome. Yesterday, while taking a quick stroll around the planted prairie at work (described RIGHT HERE), I stumbled into two interesting species. The good ole Canon came through in decent form, and I managed a few images.

There is a smattering of Queen Ann's Lace, Daucus carota, persisting in the prairie. I don't totally begrudge this Eurasian weed its space, as it is a good insect magnet. Not as good as some of the native parsleys, but not bad. Anyway, I was pleased to spot this smallish Hymenopteran busily scarfing up nectar. After a bit of a chase, I pinned down a few passable images.

It is a Potter Wasp, Eumenes fraternus, and when not visiting flowers for nectar or pollen, these wasps engage in far more grisly behavior.

A few weeks ago, I found these little adobe jugs stuck to the underside of an American Elm leaf just a stone's throw from the prairie. They are the handiwork of the aforementioned Potter Wasp, and little works of art they are. The female wasp provisions each adobe with paralyzed caterpillars, and then lays an egg within the grisly nursery. Upon hatching, the wasp grub is assured a supply of fresh meat.

Now this is a bona fide beast of a wasp. It is a female Black-and-yellow Mud Dauber, Sceliphron caementarium. Until this day, I had never managed a decent image of one, although they are fairly common. Unless one stakes out a nest that is actively being provisioned, or a muddy spot where nest material is being gathered, you are most likely to encounter a foraging female moving through the plants.

When on the hunt, these big wasps are frenetic. They clamber about plants in a fast, rather maniacal manner, rapidly inspecting flowers, stems, and leaves for victims. Black-and-yellow Mud Daubers are possessed of extraordinary senses, and if they detect a large bipedal interloper moving in, they're off in a flash.

However, in this case I spotted her from afar, and hung back. I knew she was on the hunt, and hoped she'd score a victim. All of a sudden, WHAM! She spotted a luckless spider cowering on a stem, and whacked it quick as could be. I was ready, and rushed into range, clicking away. The above photo shows her still in the act of stinging the spider with a potent neurotoxin which disables the victim nearly instantaneously. Her abdomen is doubled back nearly 180 degrees, and the ovipositor at the business end is firmly embedded in the spider.

You can see where the expression "wasp-waisted" comes from! In a few seconds the spider was sufficiently comatose and ready for transport to the nest.

These are the multifaceted chambers of a Black-and-yellow Mud Dauber nest. Like the Potter Wasp, it is made from wet earth which is artfully - and laboriously! - fashioned into these fancy crypts. You may have seen these stuck to the eaves of a building. The wasps often select human-built structures for their nest sites.

The story is largely the same as the Potter Wasp, except that this species provisions its chambers with paralyzed spiders rather than caterpillars.

If wee beasts were capable of the same level of thought, reasoning, and consciousness that we are, one can only imagine the constant level of terror that creatures such as spiders and caterpillars would endure. Just imagine a giant long-legged wasp tearing your way, and knowing in advance what your fate will be. It would be like living a Japanese horror sci-fi movie, except it's all real.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Lytopylus wasp

Photo: Laura Hughes

The more that I study Nature, the more that I am convinced that one must really look hard at the LITTLE things. At least if one wishes to really develop a deep understanding of ecology, and how organisms are linked together. I am fortunate indeed that I have many friends who feel the same, and will give a caterpillar about the same attention that they would a goshawk.

In this photo, taken on a recent foray, David Hughes (front), John Howard (middle), and your narrator spend some time on the ground - not a rare occurrence for any of us. We were watching the bed of Partridge-pea, Chamaecrista fasciculata, plants that cover the bank in front of us. Numerous ants were visiting the extrafloral nectaries on the plants' leaf petioles, and we were watching them and attempting to obtain images. I wrote about ants and nectaries HERE, should you be interested.

Well, this animal is also attracted to plants, and it is really tiny. It is a member of the Braconid wasp family, and is in the genus Lytopylus. I did not know such wasps existed until yesterday, when Cheryl Vargas spotted this animal on a trip to a west-central Ohio fen, and tipped me to it. The wasp looks big in this photo, but it wasn't much more than the size of a large mosquito. It is standing atop the still emerging disk flowers of an Orange Coneflower, Rudbeckia fulgida, and when I beamed in on it through the macro lens, I could see it was engaging in very interesting behavior.

If you look at the rear of the wasp, you'll see she's sticking her very long ovipositor into the flower cluster. I had not seen anything like this before, and could only speculate that she was going after tiny flower thrips, or perhaps some other concealed organisms. As an aside, I would say that Lytopylus wasps must also serve some function as pollinators, judging by all of the pollen stuck to her.

Once I returned home, a bit of research led me to her identity, at least to genus (as always, please feel free to correct me on identifications). There are a number of species in the genus Lytopylus, and identifying them to species is beyond me.

In this photo, we can see her ovipositor quite well. It juts from the rear of the abdomen, makes a few kinks, and then augers down deep into the clump of disk flowers. Female wasps (and bees) are equipped with "stingers", which come in lots of variations. Some can use them to sting, but the primary function is to lay eggs. The Lytopylus wasps are parasitoids - they lay their eggs on an animal host, and the wasp grub consumes the victim.

Apparently Lytopylus wasps are adept at ferreting out the locations of tiny moth caterpillars concealed within the disk flowers of Rudbeckias and similar species in the sunflower family (Asteraceae). The wasp bores down to them with her long wiry ovipositor, and deposits eggs. The caterpillar will fuel the wasp larva's growth, dying in the process. I suspect that these tiny wasps play a vital role in reducing flower predators. In the relatively short time that we watched her, she visited many coneflower blooms, presumably nailing caterpillars in all of them.

Amazing. At least to me.

The life and death drama that constantly plays out on flowers would be the stuff of science fiction, were it not true.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Sycamore Tussock Moth caterpillars

A stately Sycamore, Platanus occidentalis, rises from rich alluvial soils along a stream. White and brown barked Sycamore trees are easily recognized, and are the most conspicuous tree that defines the channels of creeks and rivers. They also play host to a variety of wildlife, some of which are Sycamore specialists, such as the beautiful Yellow-throated Warbler (at least in this part of the world).

While far less obvious than the aforementioned warbler and much better at hiding, this furry caterpillar is even more of a Sycamore associate than the warbler. It is a Sycamore Tussock Moth caterpillar, Halysidota harrisii. Insofar as I know, Sycamore is its only host plant.

I got an email a week or so back from a work colleague, Katie Thierolf, letting me know that she had seen numerous of these caterpillars at the state fairgrounds. Being unable to make a trip down there, I implored her to wrangle some of the cats into a jar, and bring the captured livestock back to the office so I could make some images. She did so - thank you Katie! - and some of the images and a story follow.

Sycamore Tussocks might be mistaken for the far more wide-ranging Banded Tussock Moth caterpillar, Halysidota tessellaris (above), which feeds on a great variety of plants. However, the caterpillars are easily distinguished by the color of their lashes - whitish to cinnamon-brown in the Sycamore; black in the Banded. Sycamores also have a denser furrier appearance to me, perhaps because their clumps of setae (hairs) are more tightly spaced. So the two species of caterpillars are easily separated. Not so the adult moths, as we shall see.

Sycamore Tussocks are interesting in that they have great color variation - one might think these were two separate species. A crop of eggs can produce caterpillars that range from lemon-yellow to gray to white.

It took a bit of wrestling around with these guys, and a lot of wasted shots, but we eventually managed some nice side by sides. These are handsome beasts by any standard of furry tubular beauty.

As an aside, this is what the underside of a Sycamore Tussock Moth caterpillar looks like. There are eight pairs of legs, as we can clearly see. The orange head of the animal is at the left and there are three pairs of thoracic legs just to the rear. The four pairs of legs in the center of the body are known as anterior prolegs, and the pair at the back of the cat are the anal prolegs.

In tight on the anterior prolegs, which are extremely grippy. These powerhouse gams do the bulk of the work when it comes to securing the caterpillar to twigs or foliage, and their sticking power is astonishingly strong. Just think about a brutal thunderstorm with attendant gale force winds. The caterpillar must do its best to ride out such storms and remain in the tree, and these legs are how they do it.

Katie brought me the caterpillars towards the end of the day, and their photo shoot had to wait until the next day. The three cats were secured in a large jar and well provisioned with fresh Sycamore foliage. Caterpillars essentially do two things - eat, and poop. In Lepidopteran parlance, caterpillar poo is known as frass, and the pile of frass above was generated overnight by the trio.

We go in tight on the frass, just because we can. It looks like tiny rabbit pellets. Believe it or not, there are small animals that mimic the look of frass pellets to perfection, and I just happen to have some good photos of one of these beasts, made last weekend. If not preempted by something cooler, I'll share that critter in the next post. But then, what could possibly be cooler than an animal that is the mirror image of a frass pellet?

I mentioned earlier that Banded and Sycamore Tussock Moth caterpillars are easily told apart, but the moths that they morph into are not. If the moth above came to the attention of most moth enthusiasts, I suspect that they would call it a Banded Tussock Moth, in part because that is the species included in field guides. But the Sycamore Tussock Moth is identical in appearance. Insofar as I know, no one knows how to tell the two apart except by a minute examination of the genitalia, even though it is easy to differentiate the caterpillars. So to be technically accurate, one must pronounce such a moth a "Banded/Sycamore".

Rachel Shoop, a biology student at Marietta College, is studying the DNA variation in these species. Perhaps, as part of her work, she will also unearth morphological characters that will enable us to visually separate the two. Such knowledge will make life more satisfying for moth-ers at the mothing sheets.

Oh, the caterpillars used in this shoot were released into a Sycamore tree at our office complex. Hopefully they will establish a local colony of Sycamore Tussock Moths.

Piping Plover braves Conneaut!

A typical scene at the "sand spit" at Conneaut Harbor, Ohio. Conneaut is wedged into the extreme northeastern corner of Ohio, on the shore of Lake Erie. It is a legendary birding locale, and in this photo birders mingle with legions of typically much more intrusive users of the harbor. John Pogacnik and I had led this trip to Conneaut last fall, and we saw lots of interesting birds. But both birds and birders must dodge numerous cars and other vehicles on the sands, wind-surfers soaring over the waters, bird-chasing dogs roaring about, and a host of other people-related disturbances.

In spite of its activity, the sheltered sandy flats in the Conneaut Harbor manage to serve as refugia for migrant shorebirds. Many of these sandpipers and plovers are making long-distance hauls from the highest regions of the Arctic tundra, where they breed, to places as distant as South America. Small birds that engage in annual journeys that span great distances need places to stop, rest, and refuel, and Conneaut provides such a way station. At least intermittently, as the birds are frequently disturbed by the seemingly ever-present people and their attendant hijinks.

Photo: Dane Adams

On July 31 of this year, Dane Adams found the bird above at Conneaut, an absolutely stunning juvenile Piping Plover, Charadrius melodus. He graciously allowed me to share his beautiful image. Note all of the multicolored bands festooning the bird's legs. The colors and combinations of those bands allow the bird to be specifically identified, thus enabling researchers to track its movements.

Piping Plovers have not fared well against the onslaught of Homo sapiens. There are three core breeding areas for the tiny plovers: the Great Plains states and adjacent Canadian prairie provinces; the Atlantic coast; and sandy shores of the Great Lakes. Collectively, probably fewer than 6,000 birds still exist. People love beaches, and human excesses have driven obligate beach-nesting bird species such as the Piping Plover away from numerous historical nesting grounds.

All populations have declined considerably, but the Great Lakes Piping Plovers have really taken it on the chin. In 2013, only 66 pairs were documented as nesting, and they fledged a grand total of 124 chicks. That was actually a good year, for recent times. The vast majority of these nesters were on Michigan beaches, with the largest aggregation in the vicinity of Sleeping Bear Dunes on Lake Michigan (23 pairs in 2013). In fact, eight days prior to Dane's find, another Piping Plover stopped in at Conneaut and it proved to have come from a Sleeping Bear Dunes nest.

Thanks to the work of Bob Lane, who tracked down the specifics of Dane's bird using the band combination, we know that the bird was born this summer on beaches near Wasaga Beach, Ontario, Canada. That's on the southern lobe of Lake Huron's Georgian Bay, and about 175 miles due north of Conneaut. As only a few pairs of the Great Lakes Piping Plover population nest in Canada, this little bird is a rarity indeed.

Here's hoping the charismatic, diminutive plover (one weighs about the same as a plump strawberry) makes it safely to its winter destination - beaches of the southern Atlantic or Gulf Coast. And then returns to the Great Lakes to successfully nest, and produce more charming little plovers.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Carolina Wolf Spider rediscovered!

Your narrator wrestles with two savages that collectively outweigh him, and that's saying something! This pair of St. Bernards are named Chloe and Lula, and they're a barrel of laughs. Nothing like a 130 lb. dog that thinks she's a puppy and deserves to jump in your lap. And two of them means double the fun!

The dogs belong to John Howard, a familiar name to regular readers of this blog and students of the natural sciences statewide and beyond. John lives in Adams County, smack in the middle of some of the richest biodiversity east of the Mississippi River. There is nowhere in this great state that I'd rather go, partly because the prospects of incredible new finds, whether they be plant or animal, always loom large. And on this trip, we scored big.

I'm bookended by two of the best, most well-rounded naturalists that I know, David and Laura Hughes. The three of us joined with John last Saturday to investigate some interesting Adams County habitats. First, we had to get out of John's "yard" and that took a while. We found lots of cool stuff there, and Laura and David brought some very interesting animals that required lots of photographing. I'll hope to share some of that stuff in the future.

 David served as my counselor/therapist when I was trying to decide whether to acquire Canon's remarkable (and costly) MP-E 65 macro lens. It's a very niche lens, but if you're into macro and shoot Canon, it'll eventually be a must-have piece of hardware. Dave already had one, and after a lengthy talk with him I pulled the trigger and got one. We're holding our macro rigs in this shot, and made good use of them on this day. Laura, by the way, is holding a spectacular female Hercules Beetle, Dynastes tityus.

Our destination was a prairie barrens not dissimilar to the one in this photo. Such habitats are full of biodiversity, often including many rare (sometimes VERY rare) species.

David and Laura work a borescope, while John kneels at the ready with his camera. A borescope is a highly specialized instrument that sports a long flexible tube with an amazingly good camera at the tip. One can thread the tube into nearly any nook or cranny, and built-in lights illuminate whatever lurks within. The operator controls the camera - which shoots stills or video - from the box that Laura is holding. Only the most serious of explorers of the natural world have such a tool, but that's Dave and Laura.

We'll stick the borescope in anything that looks interesting, but in this prairie we had a specific target in mind. Missouri Wolf Spiders, Geolycosa missouriensis.These big spiders create round burrows in the ground, and hole up in the depths during the day. At night, they come to the entrance and dash out to kill any unfortunate victim that bumbles too close. Most of the burrows that we inspected had a spider in residence, and it is really cool to see them come into view as the camera snakes its way into the inky depths of the burrow.

After a bit, we came across a burrow that was HUGE - three times the diameter of those of the Missouri Wolf Spiders. Excitement reigned, as we had some idea as to what the occupant might be. The camera was quickly readied and plumbed down the hole, and you can see the result on the borescope's screen.

Yes! We knew we weren't looking at a Missouri Wolf Spider; this thing was significantly larger and quite grayish. Laura popped off many photos and a lot of video of the animal as it glared at the camera. By now, we were relatively certain that we had made an exceptional find.

Eventually the jumbo spider got ticked off by the intrusive tube, and began to lunge at it. Laura played it like a cat lured by a string, and slowly teased the spider to the burrow entrance. This photo shows the spider at the burrow's mouth. Note its impressive orange chelicerae, or fangs. The tube is the borescope, and that burrow is big enough to stick your thumb in and not touch the sides. A penny provides scale.

We had rediscovered the Carolina Wolf Spider, Hogna carolinensis, which had not been seen in Ohio for over 60 years. At one time, going back nearly a century, this was considered a common wolf spider in Ohio. Spider expert Richard Bradley (CLICK HERE to see his excellent new book) believes that it could not cope with intensive agriculture and other habitat alterations, and thus disappeared from much of its former range.

The spider eventually came completely out of the hole and allowed us to view it in all of its gigantic splendor. According to Rich Bradley, this is a male, and possibly not a fully mature individual. Carolina Wolf Spiders can live for several years. Just imagine, the females are significantly larger!

We called Richard Bradley that night, and quickly sent him photos for confirmation. We're grateful for his comments about this species, and for confirming the identification. Our find was made at the end of the day, and thus we ran out of daylight before we could scour the prairie for additional spider burrows. There must be others, and you can believe searches will be organized before long.

Chance favors the prepared mind, and even though rediscovering this spider was not even on our minds, all of the necessary ingredients were present. Rich had educated us all in year's past about the Carolina Wolf Spider, and what its burrows looked like. John and I had sought it before in places that we thought looked good, but obviously with no luck. However, as soon as we saw the burrow we thought about this spider. Without the Hughes' borescope, it wouldn't have been possible to confirm the spider without a serious intrusion on the animal that involved shovels, and we wouldn't have wanted to do that.

Many of you who read this - if you made it this far! - will wonder why it isn't a GOOD thing that this spider went missing. To me it is fantastic to know that the largest wolf spider in North America lives on in Ohio. It is a high-end predator and such animals often serve as excellent early warning systems when things go awry with the environment. This Carolina Wolf Spider, and I suspect any others that we discover, live in some of the rarest and most interesting habitats in the Midwest. Within feet of the spider's burrow were several state-listed rare plants, and the general area is loaded with rare species. The spider is one of them, and an integral part of the relict prairie in which it occurs. I'm very glad that this site is owned and protected as a preserve by the Cincinnati Museum and The Nature Conservancy. Most of our prairies were not protected, and that's why many cool animals such as the Carolina Wolf Spider have become critically endangered in Ohio, along with a raft of plants.

Video by David and Laura Hughes

Click on the video to see actual footage shot through the borescope before we teased the spider out. Ignore our excited chatter. We were already discussing how to get our evidence to Rich for confirmation.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Ohio Sustainable Landscapes Symposium

Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, a beacon for pollinating insects and a big producer of Monarch butterflies.

Mark your calendars for Saturday, September 13. That's the date of the annual Ohio Sustainable Landscapes Conference, hosted by Dawes Arboretum in partnership with the Licking County Master Gardeners. All of the details and registration information ARE HERE.

Dawes Arboretum, for those of you who have not been, is an 1,800 acre paradise. Located just south of Newark, it is easy to reach from everywhere, and once on the grounds there is plenty to do. The arboretum strikes an excellent balance between formal gardens and wild natural areas, and as a result teems with biodiversity.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars, Papilio glaucus, require native trees as host plants, including ash and tuliptree.

The symposium features a fine lineup of speakers (present company possibly excluded), including horticulturist Solomon Gamboa. He'll be talking about his efforts to work with the citizenry of Cincinnati to come together to forest the Queen City.

Megan Palomo is coming all the way from the fabulous Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh. She'll be discussing the creation of backyard ecosystems, and how that benefits not only the homeowner but the world beyond.

If all goes well for the aforementioned swallowtail caterpillar, it'll morph into one of these beauties. Tiger Swallowtails are addicted to Joe-pye-weed, and if you've got it in your garden, you're sure to attract any local tigers.

Dawes also managed to wrangle Bill Dawson, of Columbus's own Franklin Park Conservatory. Bill will present a program on community gardens, their exponential growth in Ohio's capital city, and the good that they do.

Scaly Blazing-star, Liatris squarrosa, is botanical candy for butterflies and moths. Any blazing-star will greatly enrich a yardscape.

Finally, your narrator will be on hand and prepared to wax eloquent (to the extent possible) about the wonderful world of moths and butterflies. One could reasonably state that no group of insects has the impact of this bunch. Their caterpillars are intimately tied to vegetation, and with a bit of knowledge a person can essential garden for a crop of favored butterflies - or moths.

Possessed of an almost otherworldly appearance, this freshly emerged Pandorus Sphinx, Eumorpha pandorus, would catch and hold any eye. Its host plants? Good old wild grapes, and Virginia Creeper. Grapes and their kin are super natives that produce an extraordinary array of moths. Grape specialists will factor into my story, in which I will explore the amazing world of moths and butterflies, their enormous ecological roles, often breathtaking beauty, mind-blowing adaptations, and how we can help them out.

I think you'll really enjoy this conference, and the opportunity to spend time at Dawes Arboretum. Space is most definitely limited, so you'll probably want to sign on soon. Again, all symposium details are RIGHT HERE.