Surprise gifts from Mother Nature in 2018 – part 2: non-avian wildlife!

Birding is an activity I enjoy, especially since I can usually spot at least one bird during my outdoor excursions. I’d prefer to call myself a “wildlifer” rather than a “birder”, however, since all kinds of other wildlife also fascinate me. Here is a selection of some wildlife surprises and new species I saw last year, including a new plant – the honeyvine milkweed (Cynanchum laeve).

 

This vine is sometimes described simply as a native plant that spreads by seed and long roots; other websites call it a noxious weed. It does perhaps spread quickly but it is also a food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars so it seems like a desirable plant to me.

This mushroom was another one of my favorite vegetation spottings last year – it looks to me as if it is an animal with large ears.

Mammals are favorites of mine but I only see a restricted number regularly – white-tailed deer, Eastern squirrels, raccoons, Eastern chipmunks. When I get to see an opossum (Didelphis virginiana) – like one who visited the yard at night during our early December snowstorm, it was a treat. It seems many people dislike North Carolina’s state marsupial (and the only marsupial in North America) but it is a valuable neighbor since it eats up to 4000 ticks a week. There likely weren’t many ticks around for it to eat but I hope it found something for a meal!

   

This past year was my “year of the beavers” as I had a chance to follow these nature landscape architects in three different places. And as mentioned in a previous blog, I was so thrilled to get a shot of the warning tail-slapping behavior.

  

2018 was a good year for seeing new insects. Some are so tiny that you can’t really see their body patterns without magnification. Here are a few of my “discoveries”. The flies can be very interesting.

Sunflower seed maggot fruit fly (Neotephritis finalis)


Parasitic fly (Archytas)

2018 was a year for learning about reproduction among the bugs; not only did I see caterpillars but also chrysalids and arthropod parents caring for offspring. The green lynx spider (Peucetia viridans) is a very attentive mother; she often hangs her egg sac from a grass stalk and then encircles it with her body to keep predators away.

One green lynx at the NC Botanical Garden placed her egg sac underneath the “lid” of a pitcher plant and then hung out on that and neighboring plants to keep an eye on the sac. I was lucky to see one of the babies after it hatched.

Another spider was not so lucky – it became a meal for one of North Carolina’s endemic “special plants”, the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula).

North Carolina has many species of grasshoppers; I saw several species this past year, including several mating pairs. Here is a young short-horned grasshopper.

It’s always nice to see some pollinators.

 

  

Brown-winged striped sweat bee                        Small carpenter bee                                (Agapostemon splendens)                                   (Ceratina)

 

I got to see the chrysalids of two fritillary butterfly species, the variegated fritillary (Euptoieta Claudia, left) and the gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanilla, below).

Sometimes, I think the moths get a bum rap, being seen as poor cousins to the “beautiful butterflies”. But there are many really beautiful moths, like the lunate zale moth (Zale lunata) and delicate cycnia moth (Cycnia tenera).

  

I got to see several moth caterpillars this year; the experts at BugGuide were very helpful in identifying them for me.

   

Common tan wave moth                           Gold moth caterpillar  (Basilodes pepita)          (Pleuroprucha insulsaria)

 
Turbulent phosphila moth caterpillar (Phosphila turbulenta)

For the first time, I got to see an evergreen bagworm moth (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis). There were several hanging out in trees next to a rural farm pond – they did not restrict themselves to an evergreen tree but hung themselves from a persimmon, privet and cedar tree. I think the last photo shows the caterpillar as it was completing the “bag” into which it would insert itself.

    

In the summer, I was lucky to see a cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia).

   

In December, I discovered two cecropia chrysalids, as well as the cup-like chrysalis of a polyphemus moth (Antheraea Polyphemus, which was empty).

  

Another discovery was that the larvae of soldier beetles look like some type of caterpillar as well.

There were lots of katydids around, including the slender straight-lanced katydid (Conocephalus strictus) and the stockier Scudderia bush katydid.

 

  

Some new bugs appeared in my yard, including a plant bug with muted colors (not yet identified to species) and some more colorful scentless plant bugs (Niesthrea louisianica) on my Rose of Sharon shrubs.

  

  

A seed bug on a seed pod and a head-on photo of a millipede (Narceus americanus-annularis-complex) were cool sightings, too.

   

2018 was a good year for my observations of reptiles, too. Seeing a Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis) flash its red dewlap (also known as a throat fan) was not a new experience but the fact that it was only a foot away from me doing it was a surprise.

   

 

Seeing one of these anoles jump from one small flower twig to another in order to catch a bee for supper was a surprise – I didn’t know they eat bees. I felt a little sad that we lost a pollinator that way, but the anoles have to eat, too.

 

 

 

One day, when walking at the same wetlands where the anole hung out I came across some beautifully colored turtles. The yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta) had a beautiful pattern on its face.

 

 

 

The painted turtle (Chrysemys picta picta) with its long claws had some beautiful bright red striping. It had gotten a prime sunning spot on a log that another turtle wanted for itself; the first turtle held it off.

 

The second turtle circled around and tried to get on board from the other side but turtle No. 1 kept it at bay.

  

My snake encounters included seeing Northern water snakes and rat snakes. It was a beautiful red-bellied water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster) that caught me by surprise when it suddenly veered off its course toward me. I backed up and the reptile stopped approaching, flicking its tongue out as it explored what was going on.

My final spotting to share with you today is another gorgeous snake – a common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). It had been a long time since I had encountered one and this individual had quite vivid colors.

Next up – some beautiful raptors.

A morning at Cane Creek Reservoir

The Orange County water authority maintains two recreational areas where it manages water supplies for our area’s drinking and sewage water. One is the Cane Creek Reservoir, where people can boat, fish, bird and relax. When my morning began yesterday with a distressing family situation, for which I would need to wait for news, I decided to visit the reservoir since getting out into nature always helps me handle stress. My foray was rewarding, both in terms of handling the emotional tension and appreciating the marvelous diversity that nature offers for our appreciation.

marbled orbweaver DK7A5291© Maria de Bruyn resMy walk began with a need to wipe spider webs from my face as our arachnid brethren were busy spinning their webs across walking paths. The marbled orbweaver (Araneus marmoreus) was in the process of building a web, climbing up and down and leaving new silken strands behind as they emerged from the spinneret.

marbled orbweaver DK7A5288© Maria de Bruyn

The walking path also held evidence of the passing of a young white-tailed fawn (Odocoileus virginianus). A Carolina satyr butterfly (Hermeuptychia sosybius) was moving from grass blade to grass stem as I proceeded up a hill.

white-tailed deer DK7A5276© Maria de Bruyn resCarolina Satyr DK7A5279 © Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern bluebird DK7A5392© Maria de BruynFirst birds of the day as I left the woods — a pair of Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) that were roosting on a wire. When a pine warbler (Setophaga pinus) wanted to join them, he was given to understand that his proximity was not appreciated.

 

pine warbler DK7A5383© Maria de Bruyn res

Next, I caught sight of a Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos polyglottos), very busy grooming near the top of a small tree.

Northern mockingbird DK7A5449© Maria de Bruyn res Northern mockingbird DK7A5443© Maria de Bruyn

Southern magnolia DK7A5439© Maria de Bruyn resA nearby Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) was mostly laden with rose-colored fruit but one large bloom was still vibrant and visited by smaller and larger bees.

A number of birds were singing but I didn’t recognize their calls and I saw some birds flit from one tree to another but then I caught sight of one that was dipping into the grass to pick up insects and then sitting still on a branch for a while. It was a lovely Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), a type of flycatcher with a yellow hue.

Eastern phoebe DK7A5586© Maria de BruynEastern phoebe DK7A5722© Maria de Bruyn

This bird flew around a bit, perching in trees, on ropes and barbed wire, providing some nice views of its lovely self.

Eastern phoebe DK7A5670© Maria de Bruyn resEastern phoebe DK7A5825© Maria de Bruyn res

A blue-gray gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea), busy as these small birds always seem to be, was gleaning insects from twigs and branches.

blue-gray gnatcatcher DK7A5924© Maria de Bruyn Blue-gray gnatcatcher DK7A5920© Maria de Bruyn blue-gray gnatcatcher 1-de Bruyn, Maria DK7A5944 Supported on the balance beam

Coming up on the shoreline of the reservoir, I first spotted some least sandpipers (Calidris minutilla) foraging at the water’s edge. This is the smallest species of sandpiper and they are also the smallest shorebirds in North America. They looked very pretty in flight.

least sandpiper DK7A6073© Maria de Bruynleast sandpiper DK7A6081© Maria de Bruyn

The sandpipers landed near some killdeer (Charadrius vociferous), who looked very large next to them.

killdeer DK7A6103© Maria de Bruyn res

red-spotted purple DK7A6143© Maria de Bruyn resA red-spotted purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax) was mud-puddling on the shore, as was a Sachem skipper butterfly (Atalopedes campestris). A trio of American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) also dropped onto the wet mud for a brief time.

 

sachem skipper DK7A6355© Maria de Bruynsachem skipper DK7A6368© Maria de Bruyn

american goldfinch DK7A6323© Maria de Bruyn res

Several flocks of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) came in to the little lake. One group surprised me by suddenly veering in my direction and flying right in front of me, so close that they more than filled the screen of my zoom lens.

Canada goose DK7A6472© Maria de Bruyn res Canada goose DK7A6195© Maria de Bruyn res

Canada goose DK7A6205© Maria de Bruyn resCanada goose DK7A6207© Maria de Bruyn res

Near the end of my visit, a fellow birder kindly pointed out two green herons (Butorides virescens) to me. (Having binoculars is a definite advantage for this pursuit!). One was rather far away but another within walking distance so I snuck up on it in stages.

green heron DK7A6717© Maria de Bruyngreen heron DK7A6575© Maria de Bruyn

In the left-hand photo, you can imagine the dinosaur ancestor of this stalker.

At one point, the bird stretched and stared at the sky, moving its head from side to side obviously watching something – it turned out to be a juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).

red-tailed hawk DK7A6633© Maria de Bruyn red-tailed hawk DK7A6631© Maria de Bruyn

My sneaking ever closer to the heron was rewarded when I saw the short bird catch and eat a rather large frog for its brunch. It was sad for the frog, but that is the cycle of life.

green heron DK7A6826© Maria de Bruyn resgreen heron DK7A6850© Maria de Bruyn res

And when I returned home a short while later, I learned that the family emergency had been handled for the time being. Like the fauna, our own cycles of life are also unpredictable.

Oh, the webs we weave!

spider webs IMG_0292©Maria de Bruyn res

Well, not we human beings but the spiders. Autumn is a great season to spider web IMG_9990©Maria de Bruyn resadmire the handiwork of spiders as they build temporary or semi-permanent abodes and hunting traps. During my walks in different areas this fall, I’ve seen various forms of webs, but none as large the 4-acre web found in a building in Baltimore, Maryland.

Many of the webs are really lovely as they shimmer in the sun, especially when covered with dewdrops.

spider web IMG_0082©Maria de Bruyn resspider web IMG_0075©Maria de Bruyn res

Not infrequently, you will see the web’s weaver hanging out, like this banded argiope (Argiope trifasciata).

banded argiope IMG_0034©Maria de Bruyn res

trashline orbweaver spider web IMG_7471©Maria de BruynresThe trashline orbweaver (Cyclosa turbinata) arranges bits of old prey in a line in its web, apparently helping to camouflage itself as it looks like another piece of trash in the web.

 

 

lined orbweaver IMG_2845©Maria de Bruyn

The lined orbweaver spider (Mangora gibberosa) has a conspicuous web in that the center part comprises a dense circular decoration (called the stabilimentum) that shows up well against green vegetation. The rest of the web is barely visible, however.

Some spiders, such as sheetweb spiders, make webs that look like shallow bowls in the grass (the photo below right was taken looking down on it). The tiny sheetweb dwarf spider (Florinda coccinea) has a red body with black palps, eye region and caudal tubercle. There is only one species in this region of the United States,

sheetweb dwarf spider IMG_0959©Maria de Bruynsignedsheetweb dwarf spider IMG_0924©Maria de Bruynsignedres

Arrowhead spider IMG_2662© Maria de BruynArrowhead spiders (Verrucosa arenata) suspend a few or more strands of silk along or across trails at about head height. Have you wondered how they manage to suspend a web across a trail that is quite wide? They first produce a fine adhesive thread that can drift over the gap with a breeze. When the thread sticks to something at the other side of the gap, the spider feels a change in the vibrations of the thread and then reels it in and tightens it. The spider then crosses the gap on this thread and strengthens it by placing a second thread and so the web begins.

If you are walking along looking up in the trees or down at the ground, it can mean you end up with sticky web in your face. The tensile strength of spider silk is greater than steel of an equivalent weight but much more elastic, so wiping that silk off your skin can take some doing!

marbled orbweaver IMG_9822©Maria de Bruyn resOrbweavers tend to make large vertical webs, like the ones being spun by the marbled orbweavers (Araneus marmoreus) in the next photos.

 

 

 

marbled orbweaver IMG_1582©Maria de Bruyn res

The silk for a web comes from a spider’s spinneret gland, which is located at the tip of its abdomen. Some spiders have four pairs of spinnerets, some have one pair and most have three pairs of spinnerets.

 

black and yellow garden spider IMG_6324© Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

Each gland produces a different kind of thread, for example, for a safety line, for trapping prey or for wrapping up caught prey as shown by this writing spider (Argiope aurantia).

 

 

Here you can see how the spider is using one leg to help position the line of web being spun.

marbled orbweaver IMG_1570©Maria de Bruyn (2)marbled orbweaver IMG_9703©Maria de Bruyn res

Spiders expend a lotmarbled orbweaver IMG_9865©Maria de Bruyn of energy building webs and it is not uncommon for them to eat their own web in order to re-gain some energy used in spinning.

 

The spider is thus a great re-cycler in addition to helping keep the other insect populations in check! Nature is so cool.