Monday, December 5, 2011

Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers and a Hermit Thrush

 Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers look almost identical.  Hairys are bigger than Downys, but unless they are seen side by side outdoors, that doesn't help much.  One of the easiest ways to tell the difference is in the length of the beak.  In proportion to its head, the Hairy's beak is quite a bit longer and stouter than the Downy's beak, pictured below.

The white feathers around the eye are different with each individual of both species, so that is no help in telling the difference in species.

I photographed these two woodpeckers at yesterday's bird banding program at Springbrook
Another way of telling the difference is in the red on the back of the head of the male woodpeckers.  In the Hairy Woodpecker the red is separated by a black patch in the middle, as seen in the picture to left.  But in the Downy's, as you can see in the next picture below, the red is one solid band across the back of the head. 

 An unusual capture at Springbrook's bird banding yesterday was this Hermit Thrush.  They should have migrated south long ago.  The light colored stripe under the wing is one way to identify these thrushes in flight.  Primarily though, the easiest way to sepatate this thrush from all the others is the rusty red color of the rump and tail, as seen in the picture below.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Burdock Burrs-Nature's Velcro

Sorry, it has been a long time since my last post---life!   If you walk off the trails at Springbrook this time of year, you may get a surprise hitch-hiker firmly attached.  Burdock burrs are waiting for any passerby to attach to. This is this plant's mechanism to move to a new location-seed dispersal.  And this plant has a unique method that humankind now uses everywhere. 
I sliced this burr in half so the hundreds of seeds are exposed inside.  But look at all the "hooks" waiting to snag a coat cuff, sock, scarf, dog tail, or kids mittens.  I was told long ago that this plant was the inspiration for a scientist's idea for velcro, and, if true, you can see why.  There are over a thousand hooks on each burr, enlarged below. 

This is a great idea taken from nature. But it is a good thing there are no weed seeds in velcro.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Fox Snake Eggs Hatching

At the end of June Fridley Police found a Fox snake in the parking lot at a local hospital and brought it to Springbrook.  On July 13 the small snake laid 8 large eggs.  On September 1st, after 50 days of incubation, the eggs started to hatch all at once.  You can see the slits in the leathery eggs made by an egg 'tooth.' Lots of fluid is released from the holes, and the hatchlings wait a day to absorb the remaining yolk sac before leaving the egg.

You can see the one above is 'tasting' the air with its tongue, and then emerges further out of the egg when all seems safe.  The dark material on the egg is vermiculite from the moist incubating bed I kept the eggs in. The bubbles come from all the fluiod in the eggs and the babies breathing after they make the slits in the eggs.

Fox snake eggs stick to each other when laid, so you see them here as they were laid.
While all the eggs started to hatch at the same time, some babies took longer to emerge than others.  The eggs on either side of this one are empty and have begun to dry and shrivel up.  The ones to the lower left are still occupied, so are still moist and pliable.

Within minutes after I took this picture the snake emerged from the egg and sat on top of the eggs.  The eggs are 2 1/2 inches long, and the snakes are 12 inches long.  Hard to imagine how they fit into what seems a little egg.
At about seven days old the young snakes will shed their skins, getting rid of the left over egg smell on their bodies.  After they shed they will be hungry, and looking for a meal of baby mice, or something similar.

The babies are totally on their own.  The mother snake leaves the eggs after laying them and never sees them again. The baby snakes will turn the more traditional brown pattern color over the next few years.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Cecropia Caterpillars Make Silk Cacoons

 The Cecropia moth caterpillars at Springbrook have become almost groteskly huge and fat.  All they do is eat day and night until they can barely waddle to a new leaf.
Of course they need to eat now to have enough fat to overwinter in their cacoons and have the resources to emerge next spring as one of Minnesota's largest and most beautiful moths.

But since late May they have been eating machines.

Take a look below at the huge green eyes and the mouth on this caterpillar.  It has a transparent upper lip! And pretty weird "teeth" below.  I took these pictures in the last few days as I waited to photograph the caterpillars as they transformed into cacoon makers. Scrool down to see the action.

After finally eating all they can hold, the caterpillars sit still for several hours, seemingly transforming their mouth from leaf eating to silk making.
This moth is a member of the Saturnid moth group that includes the caterpillars that silk cloth comes from. 

Notice the light blue "spiracles" on each segment of the caterpillar.  These are the breathing holes that allow insects to breathe.  Also notice the three little "true" legs near the head.  Three more on the other side account for its six true legs.  The large projections from its abdoman that look like legs are called pseudo or false legs.  These "legs" will now dissappear for the rest of this insect's life.

You can see in the picture below how the caterpillar begins to have a glistening silk thread emerge from its mouth, wrapping it all around itself and the branch it is on.  Meanwhile its body seems to begin turning white.  The silk is sticky when it first comes out but hardens to one of the strongest tensile strength "lines" known on earth. 

It takes the caterpillar about 12 hours to get a good start on the cacoon. In another 12 hours it is completely covered but can still be seen, as you can see below.  At this time the silk is white, which is the color that the silk stays with real silk worms.  Their cacoons are unwound into one long silk thread and then woven into wonderful silk cloth.

But with the wild "silk" moths, the Polyphemus, the Cecropia, and the Luna, here in Minnesota, the "silk" turns brown after another day, as this one was doing yesterday.  Some of it is still white but will turn brown within a day.
The caterpillar will continue inside to make a thick wall of silk, and after several days will stop, and in a couple of weeks it will turn into the pupae and wait for the warmth of next May and June to emerge as the adult moth.  I'll post more pictures then of the moth.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


 The annual cicadas are out and announcing their presence with their high pitched buzzing call.  They are usually high up in the trees but they live short lives as adults and soon drop onto driveways or decks and become food for other creatures.  This one was alive but lying on my driveway this morning.

Some cicada species live underground for many years.  13 years is one, along with the well known 17 year cicada.  But our common cicada is only underground one year.

Cicadas are in the group of insects called Hemiptera, or True Bugs.  This group of insects all have straw-like sucking mouth parts and most use their "straw" to pierce plant tissue and suck out nourishment from the plant.  After mating, female cicadas lay eggs in the stems of tree branches.  The hatchlings drop to the ground and burrow down to one of the tree's roots.  They attach their straw like mouth to the root and stay attached for the next year, growing as the tree feeds them. 

After their year in the ground the larvae crawl out on a late summer night and climb a few feet up the trunk of the tree.  In the picture below you can see the shell left after they emerge from the ground with the dirt still attached.

 Most everybody has found these left over "skins" of a larvae cicada attached near the bottom of a tree with the obvious split in the back where the adult emerged and crawled up the tree to let its wings dry and expand. I found this empty shell on the tree near my driveway where I found the adult cicada. The adult then flies into the branches and seeks a mate.
This is the male cicada that I found.  You can see the slender tube like sucking mouth part sticking down beneath its front legs.

Cicadas are very heavy bodied insects and not very good fliers.

The females listen for the "singing" males, and pick one out that sounds perfect to her.  She then flies to the tree and locates the male by his buzzing call.  After introductions, if all goes well, they mate and the female then finds an appropriate branch to lay her eggs in. 
The male makes his buzzing call by slapping or clapping two pair of plate like body peices together.  Here you can see one pair just below the hind leg and to the left of the green wing edge.  One lays ontop of the other.  As he snaps the top plate down onto the other it makes a snapping sound.  When he does this very fast with both pair of double "plates" the loud high pitched buzzing sound is the result.

Hearing the cicadas always means the peak of summer is past, and I'd better enjoy what is left.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Deer Fawns

Springbrook's white tail deer fawns are growing up, but they will keep their spots for several more weeks to help hide them in the dappled sunlight of their forest habitat. 

They are very curious, but still never get very far from mom, as you can see in the bottom photo.  I took these pictures today by Springbrook's feeders

The fawns watch their mom closely, and learn when to be cautious and when it is ok to play.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Dragonflies Predators and Prey

Dragonflies, like this Blue Dasher, are one of the insect world's most effective predators.  There were many when I took these pictures this morning in Springbrook's south prairie.

But dragonflies also get eaten, mostly by birds, who pluck thier wings off and then eat the nutritious bodies.  Cast off wings can be found beneath bird's perches, like this plucked wing I found this morning on this blade of grass.

Monarch and Viceroy Butterflies

 Viceroy butterflies taste good, to those that like to eat butterflies.  But they don't want to get eaten.  And time has favored those that look more like a Monarch butterfly to not get eaten as often, so today we have a Viceroy butterfly that looks more and more like a Monarch butterfly with each passing generation.  Evolution at work.

I took these photos today in Springbrook's south prairie about 100 feet apart from each other.
This Monarch tastes terrible because the caterpillar below eats milkweed leaves that are very bitter.  After trying to eat one most predators will not try to eat a second Monarch, and most are fooled into thinking the Viceroy is also a Monarch.  Mimicry works!

The Viceroy's hind wing stripe is not present on the Monarch as you can see in this picture.  This is a male Monarch, identified by the black "scent pouches" along the inside vein on the hind wing.  But the two butterflies do look a lot alike. 
The Monarch caterpillar chews a notch in the middle vein on the underside of a milkweed leaf so the leaf will fold down.  Then the caterpillar hangs from the underside and eats the leaf in relative hiding.  But the bright colors on the caterpillar tell all predators that it tastes bad and will make them sick if they eat it. 

This caterpillar was on the east end of Springbrook's south prairie this morning, shaking the raindrops off from last night's storms and eating as fast as it could.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Butterflies and Summer

I haven't had time to post anything for a few weeks as there has been no time to go out with the camera.  But yesterday this Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly was on the bergamont in front of the interpretive center and I was able to take a few photos.  They are large and beautiful butterflies that attract a lot of attention.

This Painted Lady Butterfly was on some thistle near by.  They are medium sized, quick flying butterflies with different colors on the underside of the wings than on the top side.
 This little skipper butterfly is one of the smallest around and was also on the thistle flowers.  These guys fly very fast and stay low in amongst the stems and leaves of the plants, for good reason, as I discovered.

Right after I took this picture a female Eastern Pond Hawk dragonfly swooped in and grabbed the little skipper and flew off to eat him for lunch.

So, life is not just fun in the sun for these pretty decorations in our gardens.  They are working hard to find mates and lay eggs before the needs of other critters intersect with theirs!

See dragonfly below enjoying lunch!!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Green Frogs Calling

 The large male Green Frogs were getting serious about territory and mating this past week at Springbrook as they called all through the day and night. Walking on the floating boardwalk I could see dozens.  30 years ago these frogs were not present at Springbrook but now are the most common frog. 

They are attractive frogs with bright yellow throats, green colors, and jewel like big eyes.  The large circular "button" behind the eye is the tympanic membrane of its ear.

 The frogs suck in air through their nose until they fill up like a balloon.  You can see this one looks like he is holding his breath--he is.  Then he blows it out quickly, expanding his yellow throat while relaesing the air, making a sound that is compared to a banjo string being plucked.
Other male green frogs hear the sound and see the throat patch size and determine if he is too big for them to take over his territory. Female green frogs hear it and determine if he is the one for them.

Notice the reflection of the boardwalk railing in the eye of the frog below.  Lay on your stomach on the baordwalk and you can get close up pictures of the frogs too.  But only for the next week or so.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Dragonflies and Damselflies

 I had the pleasure today of joining in as John Arthur took 25 of us on a hike to survey dragonflies and damselflies at Springbrook. While they are very pretty, identifying these little critters takes some skill and patience.  But good species diversity in an area is an excellant indicator of environmental health. And we saw many species today.
Damselflies fold their wings over their back when they are resting, as you can see the male Eastern Forktail Damselfly doing above.  Dragonflies cannot fold their wings, and leave them open when they are at rest, as this female Eastern Pond Hawk Dragonfly is doing in this picture.

In these groups of insects, the males and females often look very different, and even the young adults may look very different than adults a few weeks older.
Damselflies and Dragonflies are all carniverous, eating mosquitoes and anything else they can catch.  This Hagen's Bluet Damselfly is eating what looks like a young grasshopper.
This Horned Clubtail is a fairly large dragonfly, but still blends in with its surroundings so well that it is easy when walking on the trails to not see them even when only a few feet away.

Along with being predators, dragonflies and damselflies are in turn prey for many songbirds and are in constant danger of being eaten. 
The wet spring and summer have created a great year for dragonflies and damselflies. There are many more than usual.  Walk Springbrook's trails to see this female Blue Dasher dragonfly and the many more that can be found throughout the park.

I took these pictures and lots of others in the last few days while hiking the trails.  Take your camera with you.  Most point and shoot cameras can take great close up pictures.