Monday, July 29, 2013

Photo of the Week

National Moth Week ended yesterday. The weather cleared up towards the end of last week, so I was able to put in an evening of mothing on Wednesday night. I hope any readers that wanted to were able to get to a mothing event or do one on their own. If you missed it, well, moths are present year-round in many places, and there is still time this summer to set up a outdoor light for an evening. Many of the organizations that accepted data from National Moth Week events also accept data year-round.

Because moths are such a large group, interested amateurs can contribute useful information. Take the moth above, the Deep Yellow Euchlaenia (Euchlaena amoenaria). This moth is fairly common and widespread through eastern North America, as one can see from the map at the Moth Photographers Group. Despite this, it seems that its larval host plant is still unknown, and there are no images of caterpillars for this species at either BugGuide or MPG. Many other species lack complete range information.

Even though this is a common and widespread moth, I was excited to see this land on my sheet last Wednesday since it was a new species for me.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Loose Feathers #402

Common Tern and chicks / USFWS Photo
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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Books and Web Resources on Moths

This week is National Moth Week. Why moths? Moths are extremely diverse, with about 160,000 species worldwide, and appear in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. Despite this incredible diversity, many moths are not well studied or are underappreciated; sometimes they are even feared. National Moth Week aims to give more attention to these creatures of the night and to encourage citizen scientists to study and document them.

One obstacle to starting out studying moths as an amateur is that they are not as well covered as birds or even butterflies when it comes to field guides and other references for a popular audience. Moths' diversity makes it difficult for any guide to include all of the possible species, even within a limited area like northeastern North America. Here are some useful books on moths in North America.

The Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America by David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie is currently the best field guide for moths in its area. It covers macromoths pretty thoroughly and includes many of the more common micromoths. The photos are of living specimens. I reviewed this book here.

Charles Covell's Field Guide to Moths of Eastern North America has effectively been replaced by the previous guide though it covers a larger area. It uses spread-winged specimens, and some printings have black and white illustrations. The guide has been out of print for a long time, but a reprint is available from the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David Wagner covers common caterpillars of both moths and butterflies. This is a useful starting point for learning about caterpillars.

Owlet Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David Wagner, Dale Schweitzer, J. Bolling Sullivan, Richard Reardon provides thorough coverage of caterpillars from the superfamily Noctuoidea. This is primarily for people who already have a pretty deep interest in moths. I reviewed it here.

Moths & Caterpillars of the North Woods by Jim Sogaard has limited coverage, but I found it useful when I was first learning moths.

Le guide des papillons du Québec – Version scientifique by Louis Handfield is a two-volume French language guide for northeastern North America.

Moths of Western North America by Jerry Powell and Paul Opler covers the western region.

Discovering Moths: Nighttime Jewels in Your Own Backyard by John Himmelman is not a field guide but a popular introduction to moths. It covers how to find and study moths, some aspects of moth biology, interesting lepidopterists, and moths in mythology and popular culture.

Tiger Moths and Woolly Bears: Behavior, Ecology, and Evolution of the Arctiidae, edited by William Conner, is a collection of articles on tiger moth biology.

The Moth Book: A Popular Guide to a Knowledge of the Moths of North America by W.J. Holland is available as a free download from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, which hosts a number of older books on Lepidoptera. It is also available from Google Books. The taxonomy is out of date, but it still may be a useful resource.

Because the books available can only cover so much, web resources are essential for confirming identifications and learning more about moths. Here are a few useful ones.

The Moth Photographers Group is probably the single most useful website for studying North American moths. Its plate series has thousands of high quality images, with multiple images for each species, including micromoths. It also provides links to much more information. Before the publication of Beadle and Leckie's guide, this was my main resource for identifying moths, and even now I still use it regularly.

BugGuide maintains guide pages for insects with reference images and text; users may submit photos for identification. The coverage is more uneven than at the Moth Photographers Group.

Pacific Northwest Moths covers 1,200 species of moths with species accounts and an interactive key for identification.

Butterflies and Moths of North America has species profiles and checklists.

Lepidoptera Barcode of Life is building a DNA barcode library of positively identified moth specimens. Images of moths in their database can be viewed on their website. Mark Dreiling is a major contributor of specimens.

National Moth Week has instructions for finding moths and links to many other resources, including where to submit data for moth observations.

Discover Life has a simple moth protocol for obtaining more useful data.

Finally, for those in my home county, Todd Dreyer has created a collection of beautiful photographs of moths in Middlesex County, New Jersey.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Photo of the Week

This week is National Moth Week. The vast majority of moths fly at night and have special adaptations for a nocturnal lifestyle. They navigate using the stars and moon, find each other with pheromones rather than visual displays, have cryptic patterns for hiding during the day, and can shiver to warm themselves on cooler nights. Some moths even have the ability to hear and jam bat sonar.

However, a select few moths fly during daylight hours. Such moths are often brightly colored and might be mistaken for butterflies, bees, or other insects that we are used to seeing during the day. Among these diurnal moths are the hummingbird sphinx moths in genus Hemaris, family Sphingidae, such as the Snowberry Clearwing pictured above. Like the Hummingbird Clearwing, also in genus Hemaris, its flight is reminiscent of a hummingbird's. Aided by its long proboscis, it feeds on deeply tubular flowers such as the wild bergamot in the photo above. The strongly contrasting yellow and black markings visually suggest those of a bumblebee. When I was photographing this Snowberry Clearwing, I had some trouble keeping track of which yellow-and-black insects were clearwings and which were bumblebees. Snowberry Clearwing moths use snowberry, honeysuckle, and dogbane as larval hosts.

I photographed this Snowberry Clearwing yesterday at Negri-Nepote Grassland Preserve during a Birds and Butterflies walk led by Chris and Paula Williams of NJ Audubon. As of my writing this, thunderstorms are predicted for every night this week, so I am not sure whether I will be able to put out my blacklight.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Loose Feathers #401

Gull-billed tern at Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge / Photo by R. Baak (USFWS)
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Monday, July 15, 2013

Photo of the Week

This is the flower of a Swamp Azalea, also known as Clammy Azalea (Rhododendron viscosum). Swamp Azalea is a wetland shrub in the eastern and southern United States. It is notable for its late blooming period. Unlike other azaleas, which bloom in May before they have fully leafed out, Swamp Azalea blooms in late June or July after its leaves are fully grown. The name "clammy" refers to the sticky hairs that line the outside of the tube formed by its petals. I took the photo above in the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Loose Feathers #400

Brown Pelican nest / Photo by Pete McGowan/USFWS
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Monday, July 08, 2013

Photo of the Week

This is a Blackened Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes melanurus), a new species for me. Like Red Milkweed Beetle (also a member of genus Tetraopes), it feeds on milkweeds, but it favors butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) rather than common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). The bright red color and black heart shape on its elytra is distinctive.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Loose Feathers #399

Bald Eagles nesting at John Heinz NWR / Photo by Bill Buchanan/USFWS
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Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Migration Hazards in the Mediterranean

Cyprus: A whitethroat, en route to winter grounds in Africa, is caught on a lime stick. © David Guttenfelder/National Geographic See more at the link.
Long-distance migrants pose complex problems for conservation. Such birds have far-flung breeding and wintering grounds and use multiple places to rest and refuel during migration. They may cross national, even continental, boundaries. A rapidly disappearing species may face threats at any or all of the places it visits. These threats may not all be of the same variety, and it may not be immediately clear which place poses the greatest hazard. In North America, we are familiar with the plight of the Red Knot, whose population is severely threatened because of two decades of overharvesting horseshoe crabs at migratory stopover points but which also might be affected by climate change on its breeding grounds. Loss of stopover habitat in eastern Asia may also explain the disappearance of most of the world's Spoon-billed Sandpiper population.

It seems that a similar situation has taken hold in the Mediterranean. Many birds breed in Europe and spend the rest of the year in Africa. While passing between those two areas, they must stop at multiple points around the Mediterranean. There danger lurks in the form of nearly unrestricted hunting, as Jonathan Franzen reports in the July issue of National Geographic:
Italian hunters and poachers are the most notorious; for much of the year, the woods and wetlands of rural Italy crackle with gunfire and songbird traps. The food-loving French continue to eat ortolan buntings illegally, and France’s singularly long list of huntable birds includes many struggling species of shorebirds. Songbird trapping is still widespread in parts of Spain; Maltese hunters, frustrated by a lack of native quarry, blast migrating raptors out of the sky; Cypriots harvest warblers on an industrial scale and consume them by the plateful, in defiance of the law.

In the European Union, however, there are at least theoretical constraints on the killing of migratory birds. Public opinion in the EU tends to favor conservation, and a variety of nature-protection groups are helping governments enforce the law. (In Sicily, formerly a hot spot for raptor killing, poaching has been all but eliminated, and some of the former poachers have even become bird-watchers.) Where the situation for migrants is not improving is in the non-EU Mediterranean. In fact, when I visited Albania and Egypt last year, I found that it’s becoming dramatically worse.
This is not simply subsistence hunting. The most sophisticated operations capture hundreds or thousands of birds to sell at market. Captured falcons may retail for tens of thousands of dollars. Some hunt birds as a form of recreation, but without the bag limits that restrain recreational hunting in North America. Bag totals have gone up thanks to technological improvements:
Even as quail are becoming very difficult to find in much of Europe, the take in Egypt is increasing, due to the burgeoning use of playback technology. The best system, Bird Sound, whose digital chip holds high-quality recordings of a hundred different bird sounds, is illegal to use for hunting purposes in the EU but is nevertheless sold in stores with no questions asked. In Alexandria, I spoke with a sport hunter, Wael Karawia, who claimed to have introduced Bird Sound to Egypt in 2009. Karawia said he now feels “very bad, very regretful” about it. Normally, perhaps three-quarters of incoming quail fly over the mist nets, but hunters using Bird Sound can attract the higher flying ones as well; already all the mist netters in north Sinai are doing it, some of them in spring as well as fall. Hunters on Egypt’s large lakes have also begun to use Bird Sound to capture entire flocks of ducks at night.
Both mist nets and bird sound recordings are useful for conservation. Bird banders use mist nets to capture, record, and release birds as a part of long-term population monitoring. Bird recordings help birders and ornithologists learn to identify bird sounds, and playback can be used for scientific surveys, particularly of nocturnal species. Like other tools, though, they can be used for good or ill, and in this article we see their darker side.

Hunting around the Mediterranean is not the only threat to these birds. On their European breeding grounds, they face habitat degradation and pressure from poachers and egg collectors. Climate change may disrupt food availability. As Franzen's report shows, the solutions for protecting long-distance migrants will not be simple or easy.

Read the full article.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Photo of the Week

In late spring and early summer, it is common to see insect nymphs crawling around on plants. As hard as adult insects are to identify, nymphs pose an additional challenge since many of the distinctive markings and structures have not developed yet. The easiest way to tell if an insect is a nymph is to look for the wings. If the wings are missing or stubby and the adult form of that family or order usually has wings, then the insect is probably a nymph. (This does not always work, of course.) The insect above is a nymph Wheel Bug (Arilus cristatus), a type of assassin bug. In its adult form, a Wheel Bug has a gear-like hump above its thorax, which gives the species its common name. At this stage, that feature has not developed yet. One clue to its identity is the stout beak, which it uses to kill and eat other insects.