Friday, June 29, 2012

Loose Feathers #349

Red-cockaded Woodpecker / USFWS Photo
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Friday, June 22, 2012

Loose Feathers #348

Black Tern / Photo by Ken Sturm (USFWS)
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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Pollinator Week 2012

This week is National Pollinator Week, an occasion to celebrate the vital role that insects, as well as some birds and mammals, play in plant reproduction. Unlike animals, plants cannot move themselves to find partners and mate. So in order to take advantage of the genetic benefits of sexual reproduction, plants use a different strategy. Most flowers contain male and female parts (though some species have male-only and female-only plants). The male parts produce pollen, which must come in contact with female parts so the plant can produce a seed-containing fruit. Some plants are able to pollinate themselves, and others spread their pollen by wind or water, but the vast majority (75-80% of plants) need the assistance of animal pollinators.

A few pollinator tidbits:
  • Bees — both honey bees and wild native bees — are the most efficient pollinators. Pollen is an important part of their diet, as it provides protein to complement the sugary nectar they drink for energy. Their bodies are hairy to facilitate moving pollen easily; some goes back to their nest, and some gets transferred from flower to flower.
  • Other insects that assist in pollination include butterflies, moths, wasps, ants, beetles, true bugs, and flies. Birds such as hummingbirds and honeyeaters and mammals such as bats also pollinate some plants. Some 200,000 animal species act as pollinators, of which about 1,000 are vertebrates.
  • About 1/3 of our food and drink is produced by pollinators. Pollinators account for almost $20 billion worth of food in the United States alone.
  • Foods that depend on pollinators include chocolate, coffee, blueberries, apples, tomatoes, peaches, strawberries, melons, pumpkins, and almonds. 
  • Despite their importance to the food industry and ecosystem health, many pollinator species are in serious decline. The problems affecting honey bee colonies are well-documented. Less well-known is that many native bees are also declining and need conservation. 
  • While honey bees and some wasp and hornet species sting, most native bees and wasps are solitary and prefer not to sting if they can avoid it. It makes sense to be careful around them and avoid disturbing their nests, but killing bees unnecessarily probably does more harm than good.
  • Many people (including me!) have pollen allergies linked to trees, grasses, or weeds. Most pollen-related allergies are caused by wind-assisted pollination rather than animal-assisted pollination.
There is a lot more information available on the Pollinator Week website. For further reading, please see the Xerces Society guidelines on pollinator-friendly gardening and land management. The Xerces Society also publishes plant lists for pollinator-friendly gardens and directions for building bee houses.

(via Bug Girl's Blog)

Monday, June 18, 2012

False Solomon's Seal

The river trail at Hacklebarney State Park was lined with False Solomon's Seal (Maianthemum racemosum). The plant gets its English name from the resemblance of its stem and leaves to those of Solomon's Seal. However, instead of having flowers hanging underneath the stem, False Solomon's Seal bears a cluster of flowers at the tip of the stem, more like those of a Canada Mayflower, a flower in the same genus. All of the False Solomon's Seal plants that I saw had already passed the flowering stage and were starting to produce berries. Young berries are green with red stripes or speckles; as the fruits ripen, they will turn deep red.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Loose Feathers #347

Yellow Warbler / Photo by Tom Tetzner (USFWS)
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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Review: Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East

The Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America, released this spring, filled a major field guide gap for people who are interested in learning about insects. Another gap was a comprehensive field guide to odonates in eastern North America. (The insect order Odonata includes both dragonflies and damselflies; it is common to use the generic terms "odonates" or simply "odes" to refer to them as a group.) Dennis Paulson has attempted to address this gap with his new Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East, published by Princeton University Press this winter.

This gap was not quite as critical as the lack of a moth guide since alternatives existed. Dragonflies through Binoculars already covered North America. However, it does not include damselflies, and its small photos make it hard to use. Several excellent guides exist at the state level, such as the Field Guide to Dragonflies and Damselflies of New Jersey. These only cover a handful of states, though they may be useful in adjacent states as well. Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East steps into this gap and fills it well.

The new guide complements Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West by the same author. Together the two volumes cover all 462 damselfly and dragonfly species in the United States and Canada; 336 of those are included in Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East. The eastern guide covers the area east of a line from Ontario to Louisiana. One of the interesting points about odonate distribution is that they are more diverse in the east than in the west, and within the eastern region they may be more diverse in northern states than in southern states. Sussex County, New Jersey, currently has the highest odonate species list of any U.S. county. One reason for this is that odonates are aquatic as larvae, so temperate wet regions (like the northeast) are likely to support more diversity than hot, dry regions (like much of the west).

A lengthy introduction covers the basics of odonate natural history, from their anatomy and life cycle to research and conservation issues. Species accounts follow, starting with damselflies and moving on to dragonflies. Paulson includes some notes on the common characteristics of each family and each genus before describing the species from that group. Species accounts include a basic description, tips for separating the species from similar species, notes on their behavior and life cycle, typical habitat, approximate flight season (which varies regionally), a range map, and one or more photographic illustrations. Usually there are at least two photos, for male and female. I feel some of the photos could stand to be a little larger, but they are adequate for seeing the necessary features. Most of the dragonflies are shown perched, but a few (especially darners) are shown in flight. In addition, there are diagrams showing the reproductive parts for male and female damselflies and dragonflies. This is a critical point since many species can only be identified via examination of their reproductive parts in the hand. The guide is formatted so that descriptive text and photos for each species appear on the same page (or pages); diagrams of reproductive parts are grouped together by genus.

The photos in this guide are printed with their original backgrounds. I have come to prefer the format in which insects are removed from their backgrounds and edited to enhance key features — basically the format pioneered in Kenn Kaufman's field guide series, followed by the Peterson moth guide, and taken in a slightly different direction in The Crossley ID Guide. I think that format is more suitable for seeing important features and comparing similar insects (or birds) without distracting elements like branches or stones. Granted, this may be more difficult to pull off with odonates than lepidopterans because of their intricate wing structure, but it should still be possible. This is one area where I think someone could improve on Paulson's guide, and I would like to see another author give it a try.

In the meantime, Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East is an excellent identification guide and a substantial improvement over existing references. Professional and amateur dragonfly and damselfly observers will want this book.

This review was based on a review copy provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Snapping Turtle

Frogs and toads were not the only herps we encountered during Saturday's field trip. Near the start of our trip, we encountered this Snapping Turtle that was crossing the road along one of the dikes, so we stopped to take a look. It did not seem happy about our presence, as it reared up on its hind legs a few times, but it did not attack anyone. This individual was about a foot long; I have seen much larger individuals.

Its back was partially wet and covered with some vegetative matter. The long green strands are bladderwort stems. Bladderwort is a predatory plant with bladder-like sacs that suck in invertebrates that happen to swim past.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Frogs in the Pine Barrens

On Saturday I was part of a frog watching field trip at Franklin Parker Preserve near Chatsworth in the Pine Barrens. The trip was organized through the local chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Jersey and led by Russell Juelg, one of the land stewards for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, which owns and manages the preserve. We were looking specifically for Pine Barrens Tree Frogs, an endangered species which is limited to Pine Barrens habitats in New Jersey, the Carolinas, and the Florida Panhandle. Despite searching two ponds that are usually reliable for Pine Barrens Tree Frogs (and wading through some knee-deep water to look for them), we were unable to find any. Most likely, the frogs normally in those ponds had already mated and stopped calling. However, we did get to see several other common frogs of the Pine Barrens. The leader caught a few and put them in a bucket so that everyone could get a chance to see them; all of the captured frogs were released.

This frog, like the one at the top of the post, is a Southern Leopard Frog. Leopard frogs can appear as green or brown, or a mixture of the two. The two light stripes running along its back to the hips are a good field mark for leopard frogs (in addition to the spotting).

This is a Carpenter Frog, which is recognized by its overall brown color with lighter brown streaks along its sides. Carpenter Frogs get their name from their raucous calls, which sound like someone banging on wood.

This is a younger (and smaller) Carpenter Frog.

Finally, here is a Fowler's Toad, the characteristic toad of southern New Jersey.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Loose Feathers #346

American bittern in flight / Photo by Ken Sturm (USFWS)
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Thursday, June 07, 2012

Plant Bug on Viburnum

A few days ago I found this bug crawling along a flower umbel on a Viburnum shrub. I could not find it in my guides, so I submitted it to BugGuide, where it was identified as a member of the genus Neurocolpus in the family Miridae. This family contains true bugs that feed mainly on plants during their life cycle. Information on the genus is a bit sparse (at least in sources to which I have access), but some Neurocolpus bugs seem associated with Viburnum.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Winterberry with a Fungus Gnat Visitor

Winterberry is most recognizable in the winter, after it drops its leaves but still has clusters of bright red berries. A lot of times those berries persist well into winter and become a food source of seemingly last resort for birds. (I cannot recall ever seeing a bird eat a winterberry, even though I have seen birds eating many other types of fruit.) In warmer months, its appearance is less obvious. It has narrow, toothed leaves and bears tiny white flowers at the base of the leaf stalks.

When I photographed those flowers yesterday, I noticed a tiny black insect visiting one of them. It turned out to be a dark-winged fungus gnat, a member of family Sciaridae. As the name suggests, fungus gnats are found primarily in moist areas. Their larvae feed mainly on fungi but may feed on plants or leaf litter. Adults live for less than a week and may consume fluids like nectar during that time.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Some Crambid Moths

Since I started mothing, I have developed an odd affection for a group of micromoths that are generally called grass-veneers. Why this is I am not sure. The fact that they are relatively easy to identify (for micromoths, anyway) probably has something to do with it. Here are a few that showed up at my UV black light last week.

The Double-banded Grass-veneer is one of the more colorful species in this group. Its larvae feed on grasses, and you will generally find the adults on or near the ground. Grass-veneers are some of the moths you might disturb while walking on a grassy path.

This Changeable Grass-veneer is doing a headstand. Like the previous moth, its larvae feed on grasses, and the adults are likely to be found near the ground.

The last one is a Vagabond Crambus. This species tends not to be distinctively marked, but that plainness can itself be helpful for identification since so many other crambids do have distinctive markings. Like the others, its larvae feed on grasses, as well as wheat and rye.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Mapleton Preserve

Back at the beginning of May, I birded at Heathcote Meadows, a county-owned preserve in South Brunswick Township. Heathcote Meadows is part of a greenbelt around Kingston that links it with the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park, the Mapleton Preserve, and Cook Natural Area. Yesterday I birded Mapleton Preserve, which is part of a former plant nursery. A lot of the nursery buildings still exist, and the grounds are a mix of meadows with hedgerows in between them. This sort of habitat can be very productive for birding, and so it was yesterday, even with a late start.

I saw or heard at least six Field Sparrows, including one obvious pair. One male Common Yellowthroat was carrying a fat green caterpillar that looked as big as its head. Several Indigo Buntings were present and singing in the fields. A Willow Flycatcher was a pleasant surprise – perhaps it is more common in Middlesex County than I thought. Even better was a White-eyed Vireo singing near a pipeline cut that runs adjacent to the preserve. Along the same pipeline cut were a singing Prairie Warbler and an Orchard Oriole.

There were some butterflies active as well. The one above is a Question Mark in its winter form, which has orange hindwings and frosted edges.

At least 15-20 Cabbage Whites were clustered around a single mud puddle along the pipeline cut. Here are five of them.

Several Little Wood Satyrs were flying on a shaded trail.

As one would expect, a lot of Eastern Tailed-Blues were active in the fields. This one was cooperative.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Backyard Moths

On Wednesday night, I ran my UV black light in the backyard for a few hours. Insect activity at the sheet was fairly subdued. I got a lot of the expected midges and may beetles, but not a lot of moths. Here are a few that did show up. Above is a Common Idia, appropriate enough one of the most common moths in my backyard.

This is a Florida Tetanolita, another common moth that I have seen repeatedly in the backyard.

This may be my first record of Faint-spotted Palthis in the backyard. I am not entirely sure of that, though, since I still have a lot of unidentified moths from last summer. These three are all owlet moths, in family Erebidae, subfamily Herminiinae. This subfamily contains numerous moth species that feed on leaf litter in their larval stages. As adults, they spend a lot of time on the ground, so you might flush them as you walk through grass or dead leaves.

This green and brown moth is a Bee Moth, a pyralid.

Finally, this Suzuki's Promolactis Moth is very tiny but very colorful under magnification.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Loose Feathers #345

California Least Tern / Photo by R. Baak (USFWS)
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  • Climate monitoring stations around the Arctic have measured carbon dioxide levels of 400 parts per million in the latest set of atmospheric data. The global average is 395 parts per million. Both figures are well in excess of the highest non-catastrophic level of carbon dioxide, 350 parts per million. Since the Arctic is a leading indicator, global levels will probably hit 400 parts per million soon.
  • A portion of rainforest in Guatemala that is hotspot for reptile and amphibian diversity was preserved as the Sierra Caral Amphibian Reserve. The reserve also has populations of Highland Guan, Great Curassow, and Keel-billed Motmot.
  • A wind tunnel study shows that beetles' elytra (hardened forewings) do play a role in lift. However, beetles' flight is less efficient than that of other animals.
  • Hawkmoths are able to sense humidity well enough to determine whether a flower has enough nectar to be worth a visit.
  • Here are some suggestions for learning how to photograph dragonflies.
  • Groundwater depletion contributes to sea level rise because water pumped out of the ground eventually makes its way to the sea as rain or waste water.