More Insect Haikus (Friday 5)

The insect activity was a bit sparse this week, in spite of some lovely warm days and some exciting things that happened.  Because there are so few insects to report, I’m going to share some haikus of recent insect and insect-related observations I’ve made over the past few weeks.  Hope you enjoy them!

Ode to the Fall Cankerworm

Female cankerworm

Wingless cankerworm
crawling up a maple tree,
lays her eggs while cold.

If you’ve followed my blog recently, you’ve already read about the fall cankerworms I’ve watched recently.  They disappeared from their usual spot for a couple of weeks during some very cold weather and an ice storm, but they’ve come back!  I was more excited about that than I probably should have been…

Burning the Prairie

Prairie burn

Snap crackle and pop,
winter prairie fire burns, 
insects flee the flames.

The natural resources guy at the field station leads a controlled burn of a third of the prairie every winter as part of the prairie maintenance, and it took place yesterday.  It’s always exciting to watch, but for the first time I noticed a lot of insects out and about near the burn area, some of which had clearly been roaming around in the ashes.  Made me think that the rabbits, cotton rats, and mice aren’t the only things that flee as the fire advances!  Interesting to see so many insects roaming around after the burn.

Stuff of Insect Nightmares

Brown headed nuthatch

Tap tap tap it goes,
the nuthatch looks for a treat,
insect under bark.

I’ve fallen in love with brown-headed nuthatches recently!  They’re adorable and it’s fun to watch them breaking off pieces of bark to get to the tasty insects hidden underneath.  They’re rather resourceful little birds!

Wasps in Winter

Wasp nest

Huge paper wasp nest,
high up in a winter tree.
Glad it’s cold today!

I got to go on a fantastically fun trip with a bunch of other environmental educators to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge last weekend.  It’s an overwintering site for tens of thousands of tundra swans, snow geese, and red-winged blackbirds, and you can see flocks of 30,000-40,000 birds.  It’s absolutely and indescribably amazing!  But, I got excited about a few insect sightings as well.  I’m going to write about one of them in a longer blog post sometime soon, but one of the other women on the trip noticed the awesome wasp in the photo high in a tree.  It was truly massive, so I think both of us were actually just fine with being cold at that moment as it meant we weren’t going to be inundated by angry wasps while we milled around under their beautiful nest.

The Birds

Red winged blackbirds

The red-winged blackbirds
flying over winter fields
look like clouds of gnats.

I couldn’t resist throwing in this haiku about the red-winged blackbirds, even though it just alludes to insects.  There were just SO many of them at Pungo!  If any of you ever make it out to eastern North Carolina in the winter, it’s well worth a visit to Pungo or nearby Lake Mattamuskeet to see the birds.  The photo doesn’t give you a good sense of what it feels like to have several thousand birds swirling around in a huge mass in front of you only to have the entire flock fly right over your head only 10 feet above you.  It was like a black wall that was about to engulf you, but it swerved upward at the last moment and disappeared over the trees.  It was magical!

It’s winter, but there’s always great stuff to see outside and I’ve really been enjoying exploring recently.  Anyone want to take a stab at a winter themed haiku?  Pick any topic of your choice, so long as it focuses on winter.  Would love to read anything you come up with, so leave poems in the comments!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Girls and Dragonflies (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

In the summers, I tend to teach a lot.  I get requests to lead programs for our summer camps and other youth programs, so I’m out in the field with 4-8th graders a lot.  Each summer, I do a dragonfly program for the Girls in Science group at my museum and it’s a lot of fun to watch a group of middle school girls with bug nets trying desperately to catch dragonflies.  This past summer I was invited to another site to do the same program with their Girls in Science camp.  This particular group was from a much less affluent part of town than a lot of the kids I work with and were going to camp a few blocks down from a women’s prison.  You could tell that some of these girls had it a little rough at home, but they were the most amazing group of kids!  There were about 12 of them and we caught dragonflies along a greenway through the area.  And you know what?  Those girls caught more dragonflies in the hour we spent catching, photographing, and releasing dragonflies than the three other groups I’d led that month combined!  And they did it with style too.  Check out that nail polish:

Girls in Science dragonfly

That group of girls was awesome, and just thinking about them makes me smile.  So much fun!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Beetles at Blacklights (Friday 5)

Last summer I spent almost an entire month blacklighting in my backyard every night.  I’m going to share my blacklighting setup with you all in the not too distant future so you can see what it involves, but I turned on my lights just before it got dark and then went out multiple times each night to document the things I found.  I focused on moths as I was participating in National Moth Week at first, but I saw a bunch of other really cool things too.  Though I have no interest at all in studying beetles (except maybe how various aquatic beetles breathe), I have always rather enjoyed looking at them.  I got some really great ones coming to my lights too!  Today I’m going to share 5 of my favorite beetles from my blacklighting adventure last summer.

A note about my identifications: I’m not 100% certain about any of the IDs I propose for these beetles!  I bought Art Evans’ wonderful book Beetles of Eastern North America, which anyone who has an interest in insects and lives in the eastern US should own, just before I started my month of blacklighting.  I used it for most of my identifications and though it is a remarkably comprehensive field guide that covers 1406 species, beetles are incredibly diverse and the book certainly doesn’t cover all of the species found in the eastern US.  It’s entirely possible (maybe even likely) I have some of these wrong – I welcome corrections if you see a mistake!

LeConte’s Seedcorn Beetle, Stenolophus lecontei

Stenolophus lecontei

LeConte’s Seedcorn Beetle, Stenolophus lecontei

This gorgeous little fellow is found throughout most of the eastern US and is known to come to lights at night.  They’re active from spring into late summer and belong to the ground beetle family Carabidae.  They’re common in fields, gardens, and suburban yards where they feed on live and dead insects and the occasional fruit, seed, or plant.

Prodaticus bimarginatus

Prodaticus bimarginatus

Prodaticus bimarginatus

This little pond dwelling predaceous diving beetle is found throughout the southeastern US as well as the Bahamas and Cuba.  It is surprisingly hard to find information about this particular species, but I would suspect that they are predatory like most of their relatives in the family Dytiscidae and feed on other insects in ponds.  You can tell this one is a male because he’s got suction cups on his front feet.

Leptostylus asperatus

Leptostylus asperatus

Leptostylus asperatus

I was thrilled when this gorgeous longhorn beetle from the family Cerambycidae showed up at my porch light!  It was pretty high up and I didn’t get a good shot of it before I bumped it and it flew away, but wow!  What a spectacular beetle!  These beetles are common throughout the southeastern US and range into New England and are frequently seen at lights in spring and summer.  They feed on oaks and sumacs as larvae.

Long-necked Ground Beetle, Cosnania pensylvanica

 

Cosnania pensylvanica

Long-necked ground beetle, Cosnania pensylvanica

This is a very interestingly shaped member of the ground beetle family Carabidae, with its long, extended prothorax separating its head from the rest of its body.  These are found in the southeastern US and into New England and are common in open grassy areas (like my backyard, for example), on plants along the edges of wetlands, or under piles of debris.  They’re most common in the spring and summer and are known to be attracted to lights.  They are thought to be ant mimics and are suspected to feed on aphids.

Black turfgrass Ataenius, Ataenius spretulus

Ataenius spretulus

Black turfgrass Ataenius, Ataenius spretulus

During my month of blacklighting, I learned that these small, black beetles are far and away the most common thing I find at lights at night in my yard.  There were sometimes hundreds of them!  They belong to the scarab beetle family Scarabaeidae and are active most of the year throughout large parts of the US and into Ontario in Canada.  They are definitely attracted to lights!  They are also a turfgrass pest, which made me worry a bit for my yard.  Not that our grass is perfect anyway (it’s more a collection of neatly trimmed weeds than grass), but there were SO many of these that I was surprised I had any grass left at all!

Apart from this tiny handful of beetles that came to my lights, I found awesome click beetles and loads of aquatic beetles.  There were several scarab species, some of which were very numerous, and some wonderful long-horned and wood-boring beetles.  Some of the beetles had crazy antennae and others were comparatively uninteresting.  My very favorite beetle didn’t stick around long for me to photograph it, a click beetle with absolutely wild antennae!  The experience reminded me, as nature so often does, that there are seemingly endless beetle species in the world of countless colors, sizes, and shapes.  Makes me excited to see what I will find when I start blacklighting again this spring!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Eater of Insects (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

I was really excited to find a big group of these little guys in a tree the other day:

Brown headed nuthatch

Brown headed nuthatch

Brown-headed nuthatches!  They’re pretty adorable in general, but it was really fun to watch them digging around in that branch with their beaks as they hunted for insects in the setting sun.  Hope they found a good meal hidden away in there!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Insect Macrophotography with a Canon Powershot SX60

I was given a new camera for my birthday last month.  As you all probably know, I LOVE my cameras and I take photos with them all the time.  The new camera, a Canon Powershot SX60, was an unlikely interest of mine.  I am not what you might consider an early adopter of new technology.  My husband adores trying out beta versions of software and getting the latest and greatest tech gadgets, but I prefer to wait a while so that most of the kinks are worked out before I spend my money.  Kinks annoy me.  I avoid kinks when possible.  So, it’s very unlike me to want a brand new tech gadget, one that is so new that no one’s reviewed it, like this new camera of mine.  But oh did I want it!

See, I’ve gotten rather into photographing birds recently and none of the lenses I have are quite long enough for shooting good, tight bird shots.  However, a really long telephoto lens can easily set you back $15,000 or more and I certainly don’t have that kind of money to spend.  Superzoom cameras, on the other hand, have some AMAZING zoom capabilities for about $500, though I knew that the overall quality is significantly  lower.  I had tried a Powershot SX50 a while back and loved it, so I was thrilled to see that the SX60 was being released.  It’s got a 65x zoom capability (a zoom equivalent of about a 1300mm lens!!) and can focus on a subject less than a centimeter away.  This seemed like my dream walking around camera, one that I could use to photograph the insects and birds I see everyday.  I was ecstatic when I opened it up on my birthday and have been playing around with it ever since.

There are things I absolutely love about the camera.  The zoom is fantastic!  I can take pretty decent photos of birds from 30-40 feet away:

Mockingbird

Mockingbird

I can also get some great shots of the moon:

Moon

Moon

The vibration reduction works well and the camera is surprisingly lightweight, so I can handhold the camera for even the really long shots without too much motion blur.  Neither of the shots above required a tripod, though I did brace my arms on my car for the moon shot.  I feel like this camera does a great job with things that are far away.  There is admittedly quite a bit of noise in the images, especially at high ISO settings (and by high, I mean anything over about 800 ISO), but I feel it does a remarkably good job with telephoto shots given the low cost.  Macro shots…  Well, that’s another matter!

I am not a pro photographer, so I’m sure what follows wouldn’t be considered a true test of the abilities of the SX60, but I did some test shots to see what this camera is capable of.  I don’t expect this camera to take the sort of stunning macro photos my DSLRs are capable of, so I tested it against my tried and true Canon Powershot G12 and my iPhone 5S, the two cameras I’ve carried around with me everywhere for three or four years now and I was hoping to replace with this one.  I wanted to really test the limits of all of the cameras to get a good comparison, so I photographed my trusty fall cankerworm moths under the porch light at night with all three cameras to see how they stacked up.  I set the two Powershots so they would limit themselves to 800 ISO since I knew that the SX60 gets really noisy above that, and I set all of them to auto white balance.

So here are the results.  These are three images straight out of the camera, taken with the three different cameras:

Moths straight out of camera

Moths straight out of camera – iPhone 5S, Canon Powershot SX60, Canon Powershot G12

It’s obvious that you can get closer to the moth with either of the Powershot models than the iPhone 5S, but that’s not surprising.  It doesn’t have any macro ability, but you still get reasonable detail.  Everything turned a little yellow in the iPhone photo, but the SX60 shot wasn’t much better!  The auto white balance on the G12 was the winner here, giving me something close to the actual color of the wall that the moth was photographed on.  You’ll notice too that the shadows get less harsh as you move down the line of photos.  The shadows were bad on the iPhone 5S and a little less pronounced but still obvious on the SX60, but you could see decent detail on the G12.  If I wanted a really high contrast look, the SX60 might be a better option, but I think the G12 produced a more pleasing, better balanced shot.

Even though I like the G12 shot a little better due to better white balance and what I consider a better ability to work with uneven light levels, the SX60 did a little bit better job getting the entire moth in focus.  The wings are similarly focused on all of the shots, but the thorax is a little blurry on the G12 shot.  But let’s take a look at an enlarged detail and see which one does a better job on a fine scale:

Moths enlarged wing details

Moths enlarged wing detail – iPhone 5S, Canon Powershot SX60, Canon Powershot G12

The iPhone 5S is a clear loser here – the details are fuzzy and the resolution is dramatically lower than either of the Powershot models.  To me, the G12 produced the best image here again.  The SX60 shot has a huge variation in the light levels on individual scales, with some completely blown out while others are underexposed.  The light levels are a lot more even in the G12.  What I really notice, however, is the graininess of the SX60 shot.  You can see a lot of noise in the image and there are sections that are muddy and ill-defined.  I think the G12 picked up a lot more detail and generated quite a bit less grain than the SX60.

The conditions in which I took these images are fairly extreme: artificial light from a single source bathing a white wall in light at night.  I tend to take most of my night photos with one of my DSLRs and use a flash, so I probably won’t take a lot of photos in these conditions.  How do the two Powershots stack up in a more typical day shot?  I found a plume moth on the same wall in the shade during the day and shot it with the SX60:

Plume moth SX60

Plume moth SX60

and the G12:

Plume moth G12

Plume moth G12

For both images, I chose an aperture of f/4 and an ISO of 200 and let the cameras choose the shutter speed and white balance.  Neither camera got the white balance quite right, but in these less harsh, daytime conditions, I still think the G12 took the better shot.  The edges of the moth in the SX60 image are just not as crisply well-defined and the contrast between the lights and darks is a little too high.  There’s just not as much detail in the SX60 image relative to the G12’s.  Also, the SX60 chose a lower shutter speed (1/60) than the G12 (1/100), so it took what I think is a less pleasing shot even with a lower shutter speed.  That slower shutter speed might mean the difference between getting a good shot and missing a shot with flighty insects – it’s not ideal!

I’m still playing around with the SX60 and exploring its limitations so I know how to put the camera to best use, but my overall verdict so far is this: I love the SX60’s zoom capabilities and I think it’s going to be great to use for photographing birds and dragonflies, the things for which I really like the extra reach.  I do not at all like it for the macro shots though!  What this unfortunately means is that, rather than replacing my G12 as my walking around camera, I’ve simply added the SX60 onto what I was already carrying!  Granted, this has dramatically increased my ability to get a decent shot of almost anything I might want to photograph, but I’ll admit that carrying around two cameras and a phone is quite a lot of weight for my purse.

Has anyone else used a superzoom camera for macro photography?  I would be interested to hear what you think about any of the models you’ve tried.  I honestly wouldn’t recommend my camera to anyone interested in photographing macro subjects, but are there better options out there?  Leave a comment if you’d like to weigh in!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Five Things I am Better At Thanks to Blogging (Friday 5)

It’s a new year and I like reflecting on where I’ve been and how far I’ve come over the last few years. I’ve been thinking recently about how my blog has impacted my life, and I can safely say that it has only improved it. Today, I’m going to tell you five things I’m better at thanks to blogging. Who knows? If any of you are considering starting a blog, maybe this will convince you to take the plunge!

Explaining Scientific Concepts

I’m sure I don’t always do this perfectly, but knowing that ANYONE can read what I post on my blog makes me think twice about how I explain things. I try to remember a phone conversation I had about a year into blogging with an 8-year-old who wanted to interview me for a school project. That kid was reading my blog – and understood it. That was a proud moment, and one that has stuck with me as a reminder that I have a very broad audience and shouldn’t talk (well, write) like a scientist. The best part: this has bled over into other parts of my life, which makes me a better teacher, a better speaker, and a better communicator overall.

Marketing

When you start a blog, you are REALLY excited when you get your first view that isn’t your significant other, a friend, or family. Eventually, and ever so slowly, your blog takes on a life of its own. At some point, I suspect most bloggers think, “Wow, I’m getting 100 views a day and that’s awesome! I wonder how I can get more…” That’s when you start exploring what’s out there and you start to try new things. Maybe you start a Facebook page. Twitter, of course! Google+, why not? You update the look of your blog, start looking for ways to self-host so you can fully customize your site. You reach out to people everywhere, learning what grabs attention in a variety of online audiences. You start learning how to link everything together.   You develop a brand and a voice for yourself.  Eventually you look around and realize that, in addition to writing a blog, you manage a little social media empire and you’ve learned some mad marketing skills! And I don’t know about the rest of you, but I actually have to use the marketing and social media skills I’ve acquired through my blog in my job almost every day, so I’m very happy to have them.

Writing

This one should be a no-brainer! The more you write, the better your writing becomes. It gets easier too! Now, I’ll admit that I wrote a LOT before I started my blog. I love writing. That love for writing is a big part of why I was interested in starting a blog in the first place! But, writing has become easier and even more enjoyable since I started my blog and it’s because I’m practicing all the time.

Identifying Insects Outside of my Focal Groups

I draw a lot of inspiration for my blog from the chance insect encounters I have, strange things I’ve observed insects doing, or photos of cool insects I’ve taken.  Most of my observations and photos aren’t that useful as blog posts if I don’t know what I’m looking at!  I’ve said it before and will say it again: I am not a taxonomist and while I’m certainly better than most non-entomologists at identifying random terrestrial insects, I would bet that most entomologists are better at identification than I am.  However, thanks to my blog and my desire to research the insects I want to write about, I have discovered many excellent online resources and books that have been a huge help.  I am still pretty slow at identifying unfamiliar things, but I am getting better because I practice a lot.  I wouldn’t do that if it weren’t for my blog.

And finally…

Photography

This is the first photo I posted on my blog:

palo verde beetle

My first blog photo!

At the time, I was terribly proud of it. I had, only shortly before, gotten my first DSLR camera and I was convinced I was going to take amazing photos with it right out of the box.  I had used a completely manual antique SLR film camera for years and had been taking a ton of macro insect photos with my first digital camera, so my Nikon D80 was going to revolutionize my photography! Yeah, not so much… at least at first. It took me ages to figure out how to make that stupid thing do what I wanted it to. I posted photos on my blog that I increasingly understood were mediocre, but they were the best I could do. I kept at it, but I eventually reached the limits of what I could teach myself and still wasn’t getting the shots I wanted. So I sought help by attending the first BugShot insect photography workshop in 2011. That one workshop did wonders! Then I attended two more and got a little better each time. I got to the point that I had to buy a better camera and lenses because the camera wasn’t good enough.  The first photo of a dragonfly nymph I posted on my blog in 2009 looked like this:

Dragonfly nymph

Green darner nymph

Now it might look like this:

Green darner nymph

Green darner nymph

I’ve seen a HUGE jump in my photography skills, and it’s largely because I was posting photos on my blog that just weren’t making me happy.  My blog pushed me out of my photography comfort zone early on and I am SO happy it did!

So those are 5 skills I’ve boosted significantly thanks to my blog. I’m curious: for the other bloggers out there who read this, what things have you gotten better at because of your blog? I’d love to hear some stories, so leave them in the comments below!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

My Mini Moth Mystery Takes a Somewhat Sinister Turn!

After writing about the moths that congregate at the light on the trailer where I work, it occurred to me that I hadn’t tried to identify the moths that I was seeing.  I turned to the best moth ID resource I know of (at least if you have photos): Facebook!  The Facebook group “Moths of the eastern United States” includes several expert moth identifiers and I’ve never had to wait for more than a few minutes to get an answer to my moth queries.  So, I posted my moth photo on the group page, and voila!  A few minutes later I had and ID for my moth: male fall cankerworm.  Hmm…  That wasn’t quite what I was hoping for and I was a little disappointed, at least at first.

If you’re not familiar with fall cankerworms, allow me to enlighten you!  They’re native to the eastern US, but they are considered pests of elms, ashes, and maples (as well as several other trees) and are known to periodically defoliate large stands of trees.  In certain parts of the country, they cause huge problems.  In my own state, North Carolina, the population in the Charlotte area has been particularly problematic and a state approved aerial application of Bt pesticides has been put into effect in the area.  Bt is derived from a biological source, the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, and rather specifically targets caterpillars of butterflies and moths.  By using Bt during the early spring when pretty much only the caterpillars of the fall cankerworm are active, cities or forest managers can target the cankerworm caterpillars without harming most of the other species in the area.

So my little moths are a pest species!  I was hoping they were some sort of amazingly well adapted winter moths with a really interesting life history.  And they are!  Fall cankerworms might be pests, but they’re very interesting pests, so they’re still terribly exciting.

The image I posted recently of the moths at the lights was this:

Moth

Male fall cankerworm

That is a male.  How do I know?  Because the females look like this:

Female fall cankerworm

Female fall cankerworm

Female fall cankerworms are wingless and quite a bit smaller than the males, so they look completely different.  In fact, if you look on BugGuide.net at the images of female fall cankerworms, you’ll see that a lot of people who submitted photos of them had no idea what they were.  The females still have scales, which implies they’re a butterfly or moth, but the lack of wings really throws people.  I’ll admit that when I found the female in the image above when I went into work yesterday, I thought it was a leafhopper for a moment – and I had even read up on cankerworms the day before!  It’s really not obvious they’re moths on first glance.

Both male and female cankerworms are active in the late fall and early winter, which explains why I’ve been seeing so many of them recently.  The females climb way up into the trees to lay their eggs.  Presumably the adults die at some point in the winter, then the eggs hatch in early spring.  The adults are one of the last insect species active in the winter and the caterpillars are one of the first species to show up in the spring, so they apparently specialize on tolerating cooler weather.  The caterpillars are standard inchworm type caterpillars and feed on tree leaves.  They can cause some significant damage to the year’s early leaf crop, though rarely kill the trees they feed on.  They eventually lower themselves down onto the ground via a silken thread (I often see inchworms dangling from silk on trees here in the spring – now I’ll be looking to see if they’re cankerworms!), then pupate for several months in the soil.  The new adults emerge in the fall and the whole process starts over!

What this all means is that my boring looking little gray moths are actually pretty interesting.  You’re most likely to see them (as adults or caterpillars) in the colder months, which is strange for an insect.  Wingless female moths are always cool too!  And the fact that they’re a native pest species means that I probably don’t have to worry too much about them becoming a problem at the field station.  I do wonder if we might have a bit of leaf damage this year given that I’ve seen so many more adults than usual.  It will be interesting to see if we see a change in canopy density compared to last year as we continue to monitor the phenology of our trees for the National Phenology Network’s citizen science project, Nature’s Notebook.  I’ll certainly be on the lookout for those dangling inchworms in the spring as well!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth