Friday, July 28, 2017

Why would a monarch butterfly hang around a milkweed with no flowers?

 Sipping nectar; taking flight.

The few milkweeds I planted in my "wild meadow" garden two decades ago have gradually spread until there are clumps of plants in every sunny location that I let alone.  I allow their spread in hopes of attracting monarch butterflies, which depend on milkweed exclusively for food, but I have long been disappointed: butterflies come singly, sip a little nectar,  and go.  Days sometimes pass between visits.  Last year we briefly had several monarch caterpillars!  But they disappeared after I was forced to relocate them to milkweeds that did not hang dangerously over the driveway.

Thanks to John McCullough (

Today I wondered at a monarch visiting a plant past flowering.  It would land on a leaf for only a second or two, then fly to another plant--I assumed, searching for flowers.  But I happened to be watching at just the right moment from only twenty feet away: as she held on for just a moment, her abdomen curled around to the underside of the leaf.  In a second or two she was gone.  I dropped what I was doing and went to the leaf to find a single pale yellow sphere not much bigger than a period stuck to its underside!  An egg, of course!  She was "ovipositing!" Now that I knew what they looked like, and that the eggs were laid singly on the undersides of leaves, I was able to do a quick survey.  Of the dozen milkweed plants I looked at, a fair fraction had eggs on them, sometimes several.  I'll survey more plants tomorrow.

I found the eggs easier to spot with the sun shining almost parallel to the leaf surface.

I will watch in the days to come for the caterpillar that must be curled up in each egg.  I hope they survive the marauding of the many insects that pass by.  Those that do--even if they hatch immediately--will probably not be big enough to see for weeks.  But now I know they're there; and now I know where to look!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Become an (i) Naturalist

If you're like me, you're always wondering what plants and animals you're seeing.*  In the good old days we had books.  I still keep a dozen or so field guides** ready at hand to look for the odd grass, wildflower, bird or dragonfly, but I've begun to supplement my resources online.  I joined the twenty-first century and got my smartphone two years ago.  Birds--which I am a perpetual novice at--were my first foray into identification apps.  I played with several, but Audubon is the one I really use.  Since I can hear birds that are hidden from my eyes, I long for a good app that can narrow the choices by analyzing a bird's song.  I don't think we're there yet, though.

Still a mystery, though probably a kind of barnacle.

Another app I downloaded awhile back as a lark is iNaturalist.  I understood you could upload photos and ask the community to help you identify them, or identify photos posted by others.  I didn't really try it, though, until I came upon a curious creature washed up on a Martha's Vineyard beach a few weeks ago.  With a real mystery on my hands, I recalled the app, and uploaded the "observation."  The very next day I was delighted to find that two people had taken a stab at identification, and had partially agreed.  And I was flummoxed to find they were both in New Zealand.

Female and male Comon Whitetails.

 Immature male Common Whitetail.

One naturalist has weighed in so far: this dragonfly is probably a Blue Dasher.

 Silver-spotted Skipper.

 Some sort of Fritillary--maybe an Aphrodite Fritillary.

I began uploading other photos: a butterfly I wasn't sure of, a couple of dragonflies.  Again, in only hours, a couple of naturalists put in their two cents' worth, and were clearly right.  Playing around on the site, I found the map listing other people's observations, narrowed it to eastern Massachusetts, and was able to identify several plants posted by others.  This was fun!  I was contributing!  (This turns out to be a bit addictive: I've spent an hour at a time going through plant observations posted from Massachusetts and Rhode Island, making identifications in as many cases as possible--forty-eight so far.)   In addition, an observation whose identity is confirmed by several community members can be listed as "research grade," and be used by bona fide scientists in their own work.

Slug of some sort.

 Maybe Common Garden Snails--need IDs from someone who knows.

Within an hour or so I had an ID from a naturalist on this Newport bird: Song Sparrow.

In the weeks since I first began using it, I've also posted observations of a garden slug and snail, and birds and plants photographed on our recent outing to Newport.

Of the fourteen observations I posted more than a couple of days ago, half have been identified to species, and several more have less specific identities.  Not bad for creatures I could not identify on my own.  And now the dragonflies in my yard are old friends.  Just goes to show what happens when you can put a name to a face.

You can do much more than getting your own critters identified, and helping others with theirs.

Instead of simply adding your observations to the general pool, you can instead add them to specific projects--dozens of which are active.  Many projects are devoted to a community or region, others to a specific group of organisms, such as dragonflies.  A good many are related to Bioblitzes: one-day events in which communities of naturalists gather in a place to list everything that lives in a particular place.  There are projects to collect observations from summer campers, and students in particular school programs.  

You can look at the observations of others indexed by species, or go to a particular region on a world map and zoom in to see observations made there.  It's cool to see other naturalists at work in your own area.  

Finally, the naturalists themselves are searchable.  You can see the person who identified your species, and see what else they've been up to.  You can find out who is most active in identifying species of a particular group.  You can even email folks.

iNaturalist has becoming my favorite nature app.  You can use it too.  And its free!

 Postscript: Only hours after I posted this blurry image of a bird in flight over a Newport beach, two different birders had confirmed that it was a barn swallow.  Birders rock!

*Naming things is not an end in itself (although there are those who "collect" identifications of birds, etc., in a "life list"); it's mainly about putting names to faces--the first step in getting to know coworkers or neighbors--human and otherwise.

**The most often used are:
Sibley Field Guide to Birds, Eastern North America
Newcomb's Wildflower Guide (accept no substitute)
A Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs by George Petrides (Peterson Field Guide Series -- PFGS)
Grasses by Lauren Brown
A Field Guide to the Ferns by Boughton Cobb (PFGS)
Manual of Aquatic Plants by Norman C. Fassett  (older than  I am, but still very useful)
Dragonflies through Binoculars by Sydney W Dunkle
Butterflies and Moths, and Caterpillars (both Peterson First Guides)
I have others, some technical, and some for specific environments such as the seashore, or deserts.

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Odes of Summer

I putter in the backyard a fair bit these days--watering the vegetables, staking the tomatoes, or doing projects of one sort or another--while all around me buzzes a confusion of life.  Dragonflies from who-knows-where (there is no pond nearby) rest on the tomato stakes or sidewalk, honey bees and bumblebees and wasps visit the milkweed flowers, and butterflies flit about. 

Lately I've been struck by their pairing.  Two dragonflies did aerobatics around each other a couple of days ago; when they landed I could see that they didn't look alike, but dragonflies (like birds) sometimes show differences between male and female.  Today, I kept my camera in my pocket, and was amply rewarded.

Turns out these are both Common Whitetails female (top) and male.  Over the following days the yard was visited by other species of dragonflies, so I finally dug out my copy of Dragonflies Through Binoculars, by Sidney W. Dunkle, which claims to discuss every species of dragonfly in the US--with photos of most of them.  

Dragonflies are very cool insects.  They live most of their lives as larvae that are fierce underwater predators in freshwater ponds, streams and the like.  They emerge as winged adults for the shorter reproductive phase of their lives as fierce aerial predators, catching flying insects (including mosquitoes!) on the wing using basketlike legs.  Many even mate in the air, flying together linked in a sort of wheel shape.  

From an amateur naturalist's point of view, they are also cool in being an easy-to-distinguish group, with their long bodies and wings extending out to the sides like airplanes.  And they can also be identified to species in most cases with a little patience and Dunkle's book.  

Those in the know refer to dragonflies and their near relatives the damselflies (similar in shape but at rest folding their wings along their back) as Odonates or simply "Odes," since they belong to the taxonomic order Odonata.  

The book divides dragonfly species into seven groups, and lays out their photos on forty-seven plates with eight photos on each plate.  The page facing each plate has a range map and brief remarks to aid in identification.  Each is further linked to descriptive text elsewhere in the book, detailing identification, similar species, habitat, season and comments.  I further simplified using the book by marking with a colored dot every species that occurs in our area--reducing the number of photos to look at by quite a bit.  

If you are interested in becoming better-acquainted with the most diverse and important group of animals on the planet--the insects--this is a good way to begin.  All you need is time outdoors (an important value all by itself), a camera, and a copy of Dunkle.  

Happy naturalizing!

Here are some other visitors in the last week.

 Immature male Common Whitetail.  (Abdomen turns bluish-white at maturity.)

Immature male Eastern Pondhawk.  (When mature, the entire body will be blue-gray.)

 Female Common Whitetail.

 A Blue Dasher, maybe, but these have metallic green eyes.

 Eastern Pondhawk.

A Mystery--for now.

 Eastern Pondhawks.

 Plate 39 includes the Eastern Pondhawk, with separate photos of immature and mature male, and mature female.  The map (left) shows them occurring over the entire eastern two-thirds of the US.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Gypsy Moth caterpillars nearly done eating

--and none too soon.  As they've grown, their droppings have become bigger and bigger, until they are now often BB-sized.  (Makes me afraid to look up, lest I see the mammoth creatures looking down at me.)  They are still active in some trees, but I have already seen a lot of cocoons in their favorite white oaks.

 Late in May caterpillars are barely a centimeter long,
and leaves are still nearly pristine (white oak, 5/27).

Earlier in June, caterpillars are numerous but small (white oak & black oak; 6/7)

These guys appear to LOVE white oak.  (How many caterpillars can you see?*)

A week or so later, they're a good deal bigger (black oak; 6/15, 6/17)

 A piece of newspaper left out under this big black oak for about 20 hours on 7/2-7/3...

...yielded only a few--but very large--caterpillar poop (aka frass). 

 Cocoons (chrysalises?) in neighboring twigs of one white oak (7/2).

Last year, I first found cocoons on July 2nd, and the first moths on July 11.  If last year is a good indication, we will be inundated with moths beginning in less than two weeks!

*I counted eight.