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.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Flies as Decomposers-Disgusting but Necessary

 Some of you may not want to look at all of these pictures. Seriously!

 A squirrel was killed by a car in front of my house this weekend, and I set it in the grass until I finished a short errand.  One half hour later there were flies all around it. 

So I set it on a table, like any normal person, so I could photograph the flies doing whatever they do.

I've seen this hundreds of times, but never really watched it up close.
 In this picture an alien-like fly peers over the edge and seems to say, "Are you dead yet?  Hurry up, I've got work to do!"

Squirrel fur is a thick forest to flies trying to find a place to lay their eggs. So they focus on natural entry areas, in this case, the mouth and nose. 

All of the flies present were the same species, as you can see in the pictures below, and the only thing they did was lay eggs.  For 6 hours.  In the nose and the mouth.

They pushed each other around and had no fear of the camera or me moving around.  It was like an affirmation of the CSI TV show.  One species of fly laid eggs for a few hours right after the squirrel died, then they left, and nothing else landed on the squirrel for the rest of the day.  How they knew the squirrel had just died is a mystery to me.

The female flies have a long tube at the end of their abdomen called an ovipositor.  The eggs travel down this "tube" and are placed where the female's instincts tell her to place them-in this case, inside the dead squirrel's mouth and nose. That will give her babies access to the soft tissue as soon as they hatch.

You can see the flies in these two pictures pushing their abdomens into the openings of the mouth and nose, and the following picture shows how these openings were completely filled with eggs. 

 In less than 18 hours all the eggs had hatched.  In this picture you can see the left over egg skins in the mouth.  The babies (maggots) have moved farther back into the mouth.  The larvae in the nose were actively moving around at 10 this morning.

While not a pretty sight, just think what it would be like if nothing ate these dead animals!  Flies are very busy cleaning things up for us and get very little credit for their unsavory jobs.
While the maggots were getting aquainted with their new living quarters, the flies returned, but not to lay eggs.  All day today, all the flies did was eat on the squirrel.  I didn't observe any egg laying.

Eating for these flies is not chewing out a chunk of flesh and chewing it up.  These flies have a fleshy appendage for a mouth with a sponge like blob on the end.  They push this around on liquidy surfaces and soak up their food.

You can see this fly doing just that on the squirrel's eye in this picture from 11 AM this morning.  These flies were wary and would not come close if I moved.
I took this picture at about 4 PM.  The baby maggots are packed into one side of the nose here like Penguins in the movie "Planet Earth."  What you see here is the tail ends of several hundred maggots all packed tight together.  I'm guessing they breathe through their tail ends, while the head end is chewing on breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  You can see two have been squeezed out and are trying to get back in.

I may not continue this investigation, as the smell will not be welcomed by others nearby, not to mention my own enjoyment of my yard.

Keep doing your stuff, decomposers, down wind if possible.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Toads and Butterflies

I found this American Toad hopping near the pond in the south part of the nature center a couple of days ago.  He did not look happy.  He was completely covered with cottonwood "cotton" seed "fluff."  I took most of it off before I took the pictures.  
You can see how dejected he looked here.  The cottony seeds clung like sticky paper.  I'm sure with every bug he ate a ball of this stuff ended up in his mouth. 

I have friends that have this same expression when cottonwood seeds are blowing around.

In the picture below a Prairie Ringlet butterfly has landed near a Prairie Smoke flower that has gone to seed.  These medium sized butterflies are only out for about two weeks in early summer then they dissappear until next year. I didn't notice the aphids near its feet until after I took the picture

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sunrise Dew on Spider Webs, Flowers , and Damselflies

 Sunrise comes very early this time of year at Springbrook--before 5:30 AM, but the rewards were worth it this morning, with heavy dew on everything.  The spiderwebs look like jewels as the sun comes up and shows them off.  I was trying out a new macro camera lens this morning, so lots of close up pictures.
The horizon line is inverted in each dew drop as it functions as a lens until the warmth of the sun evaporates it away.
The mosquitos were pretty intense after the sun came up with no wind, so it was with a great deal of pleasure that I found several in the spider webs.  This little web had three of them stuck fast.  Go spiders!
The Large Flowered Penstamon are blooming now in the south prairie.  There are more than I have ever seen, and each large flower head was completely covered with large dew drops.  I took a lot of pictures. This plant is smooth and waxy, so large droplets form, unlike the Prairie Smoke below.
Prairie Smoke is almost finished blooming at Springbrook, but the seed head stage is the most noticable and is the reason for the name of the plant.  Looking across the prairie the bunches of seed heads look like smoke, especially on a misty morning. This morning the dewy seed heads were visible all across the prairie.  Tiny hairs on each seed plume only allow very tiny droplets of dew to form, making the seed head look frosty.
 Here I have enlarged the center of the picture above so the tiny droplets can be seen.  They make the seed plumes look like delicate glassware.

It was only after I took this picture this morning and then enlarged it that I was able to see this fine detail with the dew.  I won't see Prairie Smoke the same again, though it has always been one of my favorites.
The damselflies were covered with dew this morning, and hard to find on the grass stems.  This is one of the few pictures I was able to get of one from the side.

They are too wet and heavy to fly until the sun removes the dew, but they rotate around the grass stem trying to hide. It works pretty good, except their eyes really stick out, as you can see below.
The little black dots in the globe like eyes follow you whereever you move.  I'm sure it has something to do with the way light is reflected in the eyes, but it feels like two tiny pupils keeping watch on your every move.  These little predators eat mosquitos too, yes!!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Red Winged Black Birds and Mother Leaches

While many pairs of Red Winged Blackbirds have young ready to leave the nest, this pair was just beginning to build their nest this past wednesday in Springbrook's south prairie. 

The male perched in the top of the nearest tree and scolded any one who came close, while the female selected the best pieces of  nest material for her interior decorating. 
 The male and female look very different.  The males want to attract attention to themselves so all will know the boundaries of his territory.  Thus, his bright colors.

The female has to sit on the nest and not be seen by predators, so she has colors that blend with the surroundings.

I will try to get pictures of the nest as the eggs and then babies hatch and grow.
This large female leach was caught by one of the students doing pond study at Springbrook this past week.  Female leaches have babies at this time of year, and they carry the babies with them for several weeks until they are big enough to be on their own.

The babies stay on the mother leach's underside. So I poured some pond water into a casserole dish and took these pictures from underneath looking up through the glass bottom.

Don't tell the cook. 
These leaches are large, about 3 or 4 inches long.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Red Bellied Woodpeckers and Spittle Bugs

 I don't know that Red Bellied Woodpeckers and spittle bugs have anything in common except that spittle bugs are present when Red Bellies have young in their nests. 

This is a male Red Bellied Woodpecker bringing food to it's nest in Springbrook Nature Center's woodlands this past Wednesday. 

As can be seen in the second photo below, the bugs he is finding in the trees look real yummy!

These look like some kind of fly larvae but could also be beetle or wasp larvae.  In any case they are full of protein and fat, and will help the baby woodpeckers grow. 

This male was returning to the nest about every 20 minutes, and I didn't see the female, so I wondered if she is still inside the nest with very little babies, and he is feeding her?
This female came to the suet feeder a few days ago and was taking away big strings and gobs of suet, so she must have a different nest and is feeding her babies suet.  One more reason to keep your suet feeders full all summer.  Mine goes down faster in the summer than in the winter.

You can tell that this is a female because the red on her head only goes half way to her beak.  On the male the red goes all the way across the head to the beak, as you can see in the picture above and below.
This is a photo I took in February of a male Red Bellied Woodpecker where you can actually see the red in its belly.

You don't see this very often, and many people wonder why they are called Red you can see the reason.  
Spittle Bugs hide in the blobs of white spit like material that can be seen on little plants in fields and prairies right now.  I took these pictures on Wednesday morning in Springbrook's south prairie.  Spittle bugs are actually immature leaf hoppers.  They protect themselves by producing lots of moist bubbles around themselves.  While hiding inside they suck the juices from the plant they are on, which gives them enough extra liquid to produce even more bubbles.  These little bugs live their entire childhoods and adolescence in a bubble bath!
You can see the little immature bug in this picture which I took after pushing away the bubbles.  The back end of a second bug can be seen in the top left of the picture, and there was a third in the top center, but it cannot be seen, as it was under the bubbles.

Leaf Hoppers, spittle bugs at this age, are in the group of insects known as Hemiptera, or, "true bugs."  All "true bugs" have sucking mouth parts, as these little guys demonstrate very well.

In the two pictures below you can see how the little 1/4 inch "bug" started creating more bubbles as soon as he was exposed.  He was completely encased in new bubbles in seconds.

These bugs must have predators, although I have never seen anything hunting in the "spit" for anything to eat.  Would you?