Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A white Cardinal-flower

Photo: Bill Fisher

Bill Fisher, Director of the Crawford County Park District, sent along a photo that really grabbed my eye. It is a snow white Cardinal-flower, Lobelia cardinalis, and as can be seen by its normally colored cohorts, this is atypical. Bill made the photo a day or two ago at their Lowe-Volk Park, where it is growing in the "pollination station".

If you're in the area, stop in and see it. Might be a while before you see another. I can't tell you how many hundreds or thousands of these plants that I've seen over the years, but never a white one that I can recall. Such a form is rare, but occurs with enough regularity to have an official designation: Lobelia cardinalis forma alba. It'll be interesting to see if white ones pop up in this patch in future years.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Tiger Beetle larva: Absolutely ferocious!

A pair of Festive Tiger Beetles, Cicindela scutellaris, makes love in the sand. If all goes well, they will spawn some of the most ferocious, nightmarish larvae that ever was.

There are about twenty species of tiger beetles in Ohio, and all of them are formidable hunters. If you have an eye for insects, you've probably seen some. Most common is the Six-spotted Tiger Beetle, Cicindela sexguttata, a glittering emerald-green beetle that frequents paths, woodland openings, gravel lanes, and other open habitats. All of the tiger beetles hunt by sight, as you might have guessed by the giant goggle eyes of the beetles in the photo. One would not want to be a potential victim in a tiger beetle's sights. They are said to be among the fastest land animals, proportionate to their size, their long stiltlike legs capable of propelling the beetle in astonishingly rapid bursts.

One prey is caught, it is sliced and diced with the beetle's long tusklike mandibles. While the adult beetles sound like bad news for victims, they're nothing compared to their larvae. I was recently with Laura and David Hughes, and they were kind enough to bring along a trio of tiger beetle larvae that they had captured and were keeping in captivity. Thus, I was able to make some images of these terrifying predators; something I had long wanted to do.

This hole in the sand is the lair of a tiger beetle larva (we're unsure of the species). It is about the diameter of a pencil, and would be easy enough to overlook. Laura and David found the beetle larvae on the gravel bar of a river - typical habitat for several species of tiger beetles. The larvae prefer loose sand for their burrows; sometimes clay or other types of soil.

Wait! Something has appeared at the burrow's entrance! I'll tell you this right now, you wouldn't want to be small, and near enough to catch this mini-monster's eyes.

We zoom in, feeling fortunate that we aren't small enough to make a meal. This is the flattened head of the tiger beetle larva, which neatly caps the burrow entrance like some sort of murderous, living manhole cover. The beast is at an angle in the photo, with its mandibles protruding towards the bottom righthand corner of the photo. The "face" is above those - sort of heart-shaped, and separated from the rest of the head by a gap. Look closely and you'll see a set of eyes in each corner of the face, and another set of eyes below those.

The beetle larva's tactic is to remain frozen in place and flush with the ground. When an unsuspecting ant, or anything small enough to be overpowered moseys by, watch out! The larva will burst from the hole with impossible speed, and grab its victim. The fringe of white cilia-like hairs ringing the head may be there to help defend against the larva's predators. It doesn't matter how bad you are, there will always be something out to get you. In this case, it is certain parasitoid flies and wasps that atempt to get their eggs down in the hole with the tiger beetle. The eggs hatch quickly, and the parasitoid's larvae begin to consume the beetle larva. Perhaps those hairs, which form a sort of fence around the hole's perimeter, reduce the chances of this happening.

We extricated one of the tiger beetle larvae temporarily, so as to see it in all of its majesty. It's about an inch long, and the body, which is normally concealed, does look very much like a beetle grub. But it's as if some mad scientist has welded a Ceratops dinosaur head on the thing. As Dave Hughes said, they resemble one of those dragons in a Chinese parade. Note its formidable mandibles, excellent for seizing and dispatching prey.

About two-thirds the way down the larva's body is a humped area crested with stiff bristles and two stout upcurved hooks. In the event the larva seizes something powerful enough to pull it from the soil, these hooks and bristles anchor it firmly against the burrow walls, preventing extrication. The whitish junk by the lower hook is a few sand grains.

Note the beetle grub's powerful legs. It also uses these to secure itself in the burrow, and apparently to launch mad jumps. When disturbed above ground, the larva can spring itself wildly in the air in the blink of an eye.

Before long, the grub began trying to tunnel itself back under the sand. It is using its strong mandibles to excavate its burrow in this shot.

Well. You just never know what might be lurking underfoot. My appreciation goes to Laura and David for making this photo shoot possible, and for sharing their tremendous knowledge of natural history with me.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks!

A small knot of birders takes a break from oohing and aahing over a trio of very rare birds (for Ohio) in the wetland in the backdrop.

Last Friday, I got a phone call from Larry Richardson, the guy in the foreground with the yellow cap. Larry, who is one of Ohio's ace birders, had just discovered three Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Dendrocygna autumnalis, along with Don Keffer (in the red shirt). As good fortune would have it, I was heading to Geauga County the next day to give a talk and lead a walk. Larry and Don had found the ducks at the sprawling Grand River Wildlife Area in Trumbull County, and the site was only about a half-hour from where I was speaking.

So, after the program/hike concluded, I raced over to the ducks and was greeted by Larry soon after arrival.

The 7,500 acre Grand River Wildlife Area is dotted with wetlands. The marsh in this photo is where the whistling-ducks are hanging out. They are actually there, in this photo, but some distance away as you can see. By the way, for any rare bird chasers, they were still there today and may stay for a while. Details are regularly posted on the Ohio Birds Listserv.

This photo and the following will win no awards - I didn't even bother imbedding my copyright/name (steal away, photo pirates!). But nonetheless, they are good for at least two lessons. One, bad as they may be - the distance and low light were too much for even my 500 mm lens - they clearly show three Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks.

And two, these photos will be among blizzards of images that have been made, or will be, of these birds. Photographic documentation of rare birds has come a long way in the past decade. I served for seven years as secretary of the Ohio Bird Records Committee, which validates sightings of rare birds. I also served a three-year term before becoming secretary. In that decade span, from 1995 to 2004, I saw the number of photographic submissions begin to spike noticeably. The number of rare birds that are documented photographically is FAR higher now than when I left the committee. Even bad images that clearly show the bird in question make life much easier for rare bird record committees. In the olden days, we often had to try and decide upon records based only on a written description, and often not a very complete or comprehensive one at that.

This photo is even worse than the previous. I made it by putting my iPhone up to Larry's scope and snapping the shutter. Still, it demonstrates the absolute ubiquity of cameras. Nearly everyone has a phone with camera these days, and even those can be used to gather documentary photos. Rare is the rare bird that goes un-photographed in this day and age, giving us much more solid evidence in regards to rare avifauna.

There have been only four records of truly wild Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks in Ohio, counting these (which I would have no reason to believe are anything but wild). Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks are commonly kept in captivity; read about one that was later definitively proven to be an escapee RIGHT HERE.

Larry Richardson, remarkably, has found two of Ohio's records of this species. Read about his previous whistling-duck discovery HERE. Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks range throughout much of South America and Central America, and in the United State occur regularly in the southern Gulf States and parts of Arizona. This is a duck on the move, however, and it is actively expanding its breeding range northward. As the population swells, so have the extralimital records. All of Ohio's have come within the last decade. I think we can expect to see even more of these gorgeous ducks in the future.

Congratulations to Larry and Don for an excellent find, and for so quickly sharing the news with the birding community.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

A MEGA macro lens

Be warned, I have a new lens and things might get weird on here from time to time. Above, the superb Canon MP-E 65 mm f/2.8 macro lens. This is truly one of the most bizarre lenses out there, and it probably isn't for the faint of heart. I went back and forth on getting one of these for the last year, finally bit the bullet, and received mine yesterday. Using it is like shooting images through a microscope. It'll zoom to five times life size, allowing for photography of the tiniest objects imaginable. There is no focus ring - one must just move the camera to and fro until the target comes into focus. Good flash gear is a must. So little light gets through its small opening that the photographer typically must pre-light the scene just to find the subject.

But I knew about all of these quirks going into this, and was prepared. I was down at Wahkeena Nature Preserve in Fairfield County last night, and got ample opportunity to test out the MP-E 65. A few of the inaugural photos follow.

A clutch of Hickory Horned Devil eggs. These tiny moth eggs will spawn what will become our largest caterpillar, a beast the size of a small hotdog when fully grown. But at the egg stage, things are VERY small. An egg might be a millimeter or so in length. The whitish eggs are young; the dark egg on the right is dark because it is filled by a young caterpillar about to burst to freedom. The translucent egg on the left is just a shell - a cat has already chewed its way out.

A very young Hickory Horned Devil, probably hours from the egg. It was just a few millimeters in length, and not really identifiable for what it is with the naked eye. Note that its ornate barbed spikes are well developed - these are formed within the egg.

Thanks to Robyn Wright Strauss at Wahkeena for allowing me to shoot images of her caterpillar livestock.

For comparison with the MP-E 65 shots, this is a close-up, also made last night, of a Bad-wing moth, Dyspteris abortivaria. This image was shot with my Canon 100 mm macro lens, a superb piece of hardware but not nearly as capable at drilling down into the weeds as the MP-E. With the latter lens, I could frame-fill one of this moth's olive-green eyes. On the flip side, the mega-macro lens could never show this much of the moth, even when zoomed all of the way out.

I'll look forward to delving deeper into the Lilliputian world with my new lens.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Plant hires ant bodyguards

Ah, the beautiful little prairie at work! I've written about this one-third acre transformation of barren turf grass into biodiversity boiling over before, HERE. Today, I trotted outside for a brief 15-20 minute photographic interlude, and was rewarded with something rather cool.

Among the many native plants in our prairie patch, all provided by Ohio Prairie Nursery, is this little gem. It's Partridge Pea, Chamaecrista fasciculata, a showy pinnate-leaved beauty. It is easy to grow, quick to arise, and pleasing to the eye. Insects also find it pleasing to the palette, as we shall see.

The rich lemony blossoms are offset by chocolate-brown stamens dangling from a crimson bulls-eye. An arrangement sure to lure winged pollinators. And any would-be pollinating insect would be wise to arrive by air. Partridge Pea has made a long-term co-evolutionary pact with some serious six-legged tough guys to keep ne'er do wells out of its foliage.

An ant (I don't know the species) clambers about a Partridge Pea plant. It was one of many on the plant that I chose to photo-document. We have lots of these plants in our prairie, and I suspect all of them were inhabited by ants.

We are not here, in this photo, to look at this ant. We'll look at ants in a bit. I draw your attention to the tiny cuplike appendage on the leaf's petiole, upper lefthand corner of the photo. Note the glistening reddish syrup within. The petioles (leaf stalks) of all the leaves are similarly adorned with these cups, which are known as extrafloral nectaries. A great many flowering plants are laden with intrafloral nectaries - sweet nectar rewards hidden within the flowers. They are there to entice pollinators into the bloom, where they will be dusted with pollen and thus complete the plant's pollination process.

Extrafloral nectaries are far scarcer, and arguably far more interesting.

Ah! One of our ants has found an extrafloral nectary, and is lapping the secretions within like a dog at a bowl. Extrafloral nectary nectar is basically supercharged plant sap, rich in fructose, glucose, various proteins, and amino acids. Utterly irresistible to ants. Plants such as the Partridge Pea, that are stippled with extrafloral nectaries, are apt to loaded with ants. The ants scurry busily from nectary to nectary, and in between they race about the rest of the plant in their quest for more of the sweet stuff.

The impact of this ant army? An incredibly effective deterrent to any wannabe defoliators such as caterpillars or other insects that would damage the plant. If the ants detect a threat to their spoils, they will launch a brutal attack and drive off or kill the interloper. This behavior, of course, greatly benefits the plant and is an excellent example of a mutualistic relationship: both organisms in the partnership benefit.

Numerous studies have been done on ants and extrafloral nectaries, and most have found that plants with ants suffer less grazing damage, and also generally produce better fruit crops, than plants without ants. Some investigations have suggested that plants with extrafloral nectaries may also benefit by keeping ants away from the flowers. Ants are probably not great pollinators in general, and can spook legitimate pollinating insects from the flowers, rob nectar with no reward for the plant, and possibly damage reproductive tissues. But probably the main goal of possessing extrafloral nectaries is to in essence hire a team of ferocious, fearless six-legged body guards to safeguard the plant.

Plants protect themselves in numerous ways: production of various compounds that ward off herbivores; thorns; development of difficult to digest fibrous products such as lignin, etc. But few protective strategies top the complex active defense system brought on by development of extrafloral nectaries. This defense system isn't particularly common; for instance, of the 330 or so species of Chamaecrista worldwide, only about 26 have evolved extrafloral nectaries.

While ants are clearly the primary target of the nectaries, they also attract other predators such as jumping spiders. The spiders will apparently sip at the nectaries, and are drawn to plants that sport them. Having a jumper or two hanging out in your foliage is a good way to help keep plant-damaging insects at bay. I photographed this jumping spider (species unknown) on Tuesday in a prairie with plenty of Partridge Pea close at hand. I didn't see it visiting nectaries, and didn't know that they would do so until doing some research for this piece. I'll be more alert in the future and try to photo-document a jumper sipping from a nectary.

Partridge Pea is in full bloom now. If you're around some of these plants, have a look to see if ants are working the extrafloral nectaries.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A trip to the prairies (or what's left of them)

A summer would be incomplete without a visit to the scraps of remaining prairie west of Columbus. A few sites like the above, tiny 1/2 acre Bigelow Cemetery, are all that remain of the formerly vast Darby Plains, which covered some 385 square miles. My generation must make do with postage stamp-sized museum pieces. Once Deere unleashed his chisel plow, game over for the prairies. What was once a botanical wonderland full of an incredible floristic diversity, with attendant abundant animal life, has been pulverized by the plow. Over 99% of Ohio's original prairie has been converted to the Big Three: corn, soybeans, and wheat.

I still greatly appreciate what we have left. Bigelow Cemetery, which dodged the plow as burial grounds are sacred, and the cemetery was established before farmers had gotten around to plowing up all of Madison County, was looking good. I was there yesterday, and reveled in the mid-July explosion of prairie plants.

Purple and Gray-headed coneflowers, Wild Bergamot, and Royal Catchfly paint the tiny cemetery in a rich palette of colors.

The Royal Catchfly, Silene regia, is exceptionally vigorous this year. This is a prairie plant if there ever was one. If you see Royal Catchfly, and it's growing wild, you are in a prairie, or at least the remnants of one. Whenever I see this beauty, I take photo after photo, trying for the perfect image. Yesterday, while standing quietly composing images, my frame was photo-bombed by a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Alas, before I could react and snap her chin-deep in a catchfly flower, she noticed me and shot off, scolding your narrator with a barrage of angry squeaks.

Where the coneflowers and catchfly end in the above photo, beans and corn take over. And stretch for miles and miles in all directions. What collective fools we are, as a species, to destroy so much of our richest (former) natural resource. You'd think we might have saved - not to be greedy or anything - maybe five (three? two?) percent of it. What a richer Ohio we'd have.

Enough of lamenting the stupid follies of our imperfect primate past. You owe yourself a visit to Bigelow Cemetery, soon. While the catchfly still blooms. More info on this pioneer cemetery HERE.

Another prairie shard that I visited was Milford Center Prairie in Union County. This scrap, like the cemetery, exists largely by accident. A railroad bisected the prairie at this point, and the buffering right-of-way was spared the plow. After the tracks were yanked, a utility acquired the right-of-way and installed power lines, thus keeping the plow at bay.

There is apparently a mass synchronous bloom of Royal Catchfly, because it also looked as good as I have ever seen it at this spot, too. NOTE TO MANAGERS: Milford Center Prairie really needs a good fire. Maybe next fall or spring...

Nearly overshadowed by the botanical extroverts was this diminutive little plant, the Hairy Ruellia, Ruellia humilis. What an ungraceful common name - and common names are quite important! Another option with a bit more pizazz might be "Prairie Petunia".

I was pleased to be strafed by this F-15 of a butterfly, the Silver-spotted Skipper, Epargyreus clarus. He finally settled on a leaf, and seemingly entranced by my macro camera rig, allowed me right up into his grill. Normally this species, the largest of our skippers, is rather wary and close approaches can be difficult. I was grateful for his cooperation.

Less cooperative, strangely enough, was this Exposed Bird-dropping Moth, Tarache aprica. Normally the animals that mimic bird droppings - there are scores - sit and pose quite nicely. They are apparently confident in their resemblance to fresh Blue Jay splat. Very few things enjoy eating bird droppings, so if you can do a good scat imitation, your chances of survival rise.

I had to stalk this moth, and after the third flush it finally allowed me in close enough to obtain this one image. After making my photo, it vanished into the thick prairie vegetation from whence it came.

One can only imagine my pleasure at stumbling into this black and scarlet beast. It is a Poison Ivy Sawfly, Arge humeralis, and the animal is quite the showstopper if you ask me. As you may have inferred from the name, the larvae of this species - they greatly resemble caterpillars in appearance and behavior - feed on Poison Ivy. As if you didn't already like this bug.

The sawfly is standing on a rich carpet of Queen Ann's Lace flowers, and was busily working them over. Note how its head is liberally encrusted with pollen. Forget the European Honeybee - all manner of native bees, wasps, flies, beetles and others do the heavy lifting when it comes to pollinating our native plant crops. While Queen Ann's Lace, Daucus carota, is not a native species, it sure does lure insects. as do many of our native parsleys.

Both of the prairie remnants that I visited host lush beds of this plant, Scurf Pea, Orbexilum onobrychis, and the plants were adorned with both flowers and fruit.

It didn't take much searching to uncover one of these beautiful polka-dotted caterpillars. It is the larva of an as yet to be described species of flower moth in the genus Schinia. I recently shared photos of the moth IN THIS POST. I had discovered this species in Milford Center Prairie two years ago, and it seems to be doing well. Yesterday, in short order, I found six of the caterpillars, and didn't check the vast majority of host plants that are present.

Our yet to be named flower moth caterpillar is a finicky eater. Scurf Pea is its only known host. Not only that, but the cats eat only the innards of the fruit. In the above photo, the caterpillar has bored a round hole through the fruit's wall and is vacuuming out the contents. Wedding oneself so tightly to one plant species is generally a bad strategy. If some other animal comes along and destroys 99% of your habitat, your fortunes will plummet. I've written more about this rarity HERE.

While perhaps the most humble of the flora and fauna featured in this post, I was most excited to find this tiny flake of a moth. It is a true rarity, perhaps even scarcer than the previous Schinia flower moth. This one does have a name, though: Coppery Orbexilum Moth, Hystrichophora loricana. The animal in the photo was at Milford Center Prairie, and it was the only one that I saw in spite of an hour or so of searching. Laura and David Hughes had discovered it there last year. I also found one, only one, at Bigelow Cemetery yesterday, adding Madison County to its range.

The Coppery Orbexilum Moth was originally discovered near Dayton, Ohio in 1880, and was described to science from that specimen. Then it dropped off the radar for about a century, until an entomologist found a few small populations in southern Illinois. John Howard found a couple populations in Adams County, Ohio, and a lepidopterist also located some of the moths in Kentucky. A few years ago, I stumbled into one in a prairie near Dayton, and was able to photograph it. I'll have to try and unearth the moth's original description sometime and see if I can ferret out exactly where in Dayton the original collection was made. Maybe I refound the site. Anyway, insofar as I know, those are all of the known occurrences of this inconspicuous little moth.

I'm glad we have spared a few little scraps of prairie for the moths, and the scores of other flora and fauna that are prairie-dependent.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Lesser Grapevine Looper

A Lesser Grapevine Looper, Eulithis diversilineata, rests under your narrator's porch lights.

I found myself chained to my desk today, writing, writing, writing. Come nightfall, I took a break to see if any interesting lepidopterans had stopped in at the porch lights. Sure enough, the little oddity above was camped out on the wall. I was quite pleased, and rushed to get the camera. Lesser Grapevine Loopers are common, but I had no good photos of one, and here was the opportunity to remedy that!

Note the bizarrely curled abdomen, a very distinctive posture in this species. I suppose it is some sort of disruptive camouflage, perhaps making the resting moth appear more like a leaf with attached petiole. It certainly makes the moth an interesting photographic subject, if you ask me.

Shooting moths at night is always a challenge. Flash is essential, and it must be set properly for best results. For these shots, I used my Canon 5D Mark III, set on full manual, with the following settings: f/11, shutter speed of 1/200, and ISO at 100. Most importantly, the Canon Twin Lite flashes were mounted at the end of the 100 mm macro lens. The flash was set to ETTL mode, which it allows it to "talk" to the camera and meter the perfect amount of light.

No matter what your rig, as long as you can control the camera's settings manually, you can improve your nighttime shots. Find out what the camera's sync speed is - the fastest shutter speed that it will shoot at while using the flash. If you exceed the sync speed, the resultant photo will be partially blacked out or the camera won't shoot at all. Set the camera to f/11 (maybe f/8 on some point & shoots), ISO to 100, and the flash (built-n or external) to ETTL mode. Voila! You should end up with nicely exposed images, although some tweaking may be required.

The Lesser Grapevine Looper is one of a large cast of characters that depends on native grapes in the genus Vitis, and Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, for survival. Remove these plants, which are all too often derided as weedy, and take away the food source for legions of caterpillars.

I've written about the value of grapes and their kin RIGHT HERE.