Monday, August 14, 2017

Giant Swallowtail Butterfly

 Giant Swallowtails are new residents of Minnesota.  They are the largest butterfly in North America, and a few used to migrate north into our area each summer, but a warming climate allows their caterpillars to survive our winters now.

I found this one sipping mineral fluids from a dirt parking area this afternoon in Elm Creek Park Reserve.  Butterflies with a seven inch wing span are fun to see.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Hummingbirds Have Long Tongues

 This Ruby-throated Hummingbird has been feeding every day lately from the Trumpet Vine off my deck. This is either a female or a young bird from this year as there are no ruby colored feathers on the throat.

This picture shows how long the tongue is as it prepares to enter another flower for more nectar.
 The Trumpet Vine flowers are long and it looks like this hummingbird needs its head, neck, bill, and tongue to get to the nectar at the very bottom of the flower.

It would visit each flower and then return an hour later for a second visit, and then repeat this all day.

The Hummingbird would often rest in the Lilac Bushes nearby after working the flowers for ten or fifteen minutes, as seen in the picture below.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Spiny Assassin Bug Eggs and Babies

 In my native plant garden recently I found these very attractive eggs on the underside of a swamp milkweed leaf.  I thought they were some kind of squash bug egg and kept them to see what would hatch.

The eggs were small, but quite a bit larger than the Monarch butterfly eggs I had been looking for, and placed in these very nice rows, for a total of 15 eggs.

 The eggs had a very symmetrical pattern and were facing in the same direction.
I thought the eggs looked a bit like a tiny football, with their shiny, copper color and pattern.

I don't know how old  they were when I found them, but 5 days after finding them they hatched and I was very surprised to see what the hatchlings looked like.  Not at all what I was expecting.
 All 15 eggs hatched.  And the hatchlings were a surprising bright red with many black spines all over their bodies.

Their antenna were longer than their bodies and legs, and were waving all around as they started to move away from the eggs as a group.
They obviously expanded their bodies quite a bit after emerging from their eggs.

Spiny Assassin Bugs are true bugs, and in the insect order called Hemiptera.  All true bugs have a tube-like sucking mouth, and they either suck plant juices, or prey on other insects and suck the juices from their prey.

Spiny Assassin Bugs are predators and capture other insects to eat.

As they eat they grow, and need to shed their skins to grow.  With each shed they look different, so see below.

This is what the Spiny Assassin Bug looks like in its second instar, after it has shed its skin once.

I will try to post pictures of their next instars, but will need to recapture one as they have been released back into the native wildflower garden to contribute their part to the very active ecosystem there.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Monarch Caterpillar Fly Parasite

 Monarch Butterflies are one of the best known butterflies in Minnesota.  Many people grow milkweed and protect milkweed plants, on which the Monarch caterpillars feed.

But in nature there are many battles every species needs to constantly fight to have its population stay healthy and survive to reproduce the next generation.

For the Monarch a parasitic tachinid fly is one of the battles it must face.
 This particular tachinid fly lays its eggs directly onto the skin of the Monarch caterpillar.  It will lay up to eight or more eggs on one caterpillar.

The eggs hatch and burrow into the insides of the  caterpillar, feeding on non-vital tissue, so the caterpillar can stay healthy enough to keep eating, providing more food for these parasites.

The fly larvae, which are small white maggots, continue to eat inside the caterpillar until they are ready to pupate, the stage of metamorphosis in which they will prepare to turn into adult flies.  To do this the maggots have to leave the caterpillar and drop to the ground.

 The process of the fly larvae leaving to pupate in the dirt on the ground often happens shortly after the caterpillar has changed into a chrysalis itself, the Monarch's pupa stage.

After the fly maggots eat an exit hole in the caterpillar or chrysalis, and drop to the ground, the Monarch caterpillar or chrysalis always dies.  Its vital organs finally having been eaten by the maggots before they left.

Below are eight pupae of the parasitic tachinid fly shortly after they emerged from a Monarch chrysalis 11 days ago.
 The white maggots turned into these brown pupae very quickly after they emerged from the chrysalis.

They stayed like this for ten days, and began to emerge as adult flies yesterday.
By this morning six of the eight had emerged as adult flies.  These pictures give an idea of what they look like, and the shape and color patterns on their bodies.

The two gray antenna on the front of the face seem slightly different than other flies.

The adult flies are about the size of an average house fly, and it would be difficult at first glance to notice any difference.

The pattern on the back seems a little more pronounced than some flies.

The face down below would only be appealing to another tachinid fly.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Hepatica and Brown Creepers

 The beginning of real spring is here when the Hepatica start to bloom.  They are the first wildflowers to bloom in my backyard along with the Bloodroot.  Most early spring wildflowers have large blossoms that provide significant nectar return on the energy early pollinators use up when getting around in the colder spring weather.

But Hepatica are different.  They have tiny flowers.  Mine measured only 3/8 of an inch across.  But somehow they make it worth a pollinator's effort.  There were a couple of flies nearby when I took these pictures yesterday, but none landed on the flowers while I was there.

It sure is nice to see these pretty flowers after the long winter in Minnesota.

 Brown Creepers are not a sign of spring, since they stay here through the winter.  This one was mixed in with a large group of Yellow-rumped Warblers yesterday, and they were a nice sign of spring.

Brown Creepers are strange and fairly uncommon little birds that act like nuthatches but are more closely related to wrens.

They fly to the base of a  large tree and creep up the bark while spiraling around the tree trunk until they reach the top, then fly to another tree and do the same.

They find tiny bugs under the bark using their curved bill to fit into tiny crevices.

According to one source I found, they only use up 4 calories per day, on average, while climbing hundreds of trees  And eating one little spider gives them enough energy to make it 200 feet up a tree.  Their weight of 8-9 grams is a little less than that of an average Black Capped Chickadee.

As can be seen in the picture they have long toes with long claws for gripping bark. 

Brown Creepers also have long tails 
 One of the reasons Brown Creepers are seldom seen is because they are very hard to see.  Their natural coloring camouflages them extremely well when they are moving up the tree trunk looking for bugs. 

I have enhanced the colors of this picture, but it still blends in very well.  Their camouflage is so effective that the auto focus on the camera has trouble finding a focus point, so the majority of the pictures I took of this little bird yesterday have the bark in focus instead of the feathers on the back of the bird.

The feathers on the top of the back of the bird are perfectly in focus here, but still look blurry. These birds are good at hiding even when in plain sight!

Notice the long tail and see the picture below.
 Brown Creepers have long, stiff,  pointed tails to use as a brace when pulling bugs from under the bark. 

Brown Creepers have 12 tail feathers, so 6 come to a point on one side, and another 6 on the other, making a stiff and very effective brace.

With its solid color, the tail is one of the easiest parts to see on this tiny bird, at least in a picture.

When you actually see one of these interesting birds they never stop moving, so are hard to observe for more than a second or two in one spot.

This picture shows the forked tail, and the long leg, toes, and claws, as well as the brown mottling colors that are typical of Brown Creepers.  The black curved beak is a little harder to see at the top of the picture.

The picture also shows the little midge fly in the lower right.  These had just emerged and were flying in clouds of thousands all around the area where I took these pictures yesterday.  Many of these may have been on the tree bark, and might have been part of a late lunch for this Brown Creeper.