Smoky Mountain Insects

Oh wow, it’s been a month since I last posted anything.  Whoops!  Can only say that it’s been a REALLY busy month and work with a lot of long hours and evening programs. But things slow down for a little while and that means I have the time and energy to blog!

Last weekend I went to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and helped one of my coworkers lead an educator trek.  At the museum where I work, educator treks are open to formal and informal educators (people who work at museums, zoos, environmental education centers, and the like) and take them out into the field for one to seven days to learn about nature and science firsthand.  For this particular three-day trip, we spent a day at the facility at Purchase Knob learning from the rangers about citizen science efforts that are being done at the park and getting some hands on experience.  It’s a spectacularly beautiful place:

We looked at the status of a bunch of trees for the Nature’s Notebook project and did a leaf litter arthropod study that the park oversees.  The latter involved putting leaf litter into a shaker box, shaking it vigorously, and then using an aspirator (also known as a pooter or, as our ranger calls them, “suckie upper thingies”) to transfer any animals to a vial for examination back in the classroom.  It was fun watching the teachers respond to the insects they caught once they were projected onto a big screen with a video microscope:

In the afternoon, we walked a very long way down a very steep mountain to get to a stream to check for salamanders along some transect lines the park has set up in the area.  I know next to nothing about salamanders, but apparently the pygmy salamanders we saw are very interesting and we saw 7 species altogether.  As the last group finished measuring the salamanders they’d caught and recorded their data, the rest of the group wandered down to the stream to look for more salamanders.  Now I love salamanders, but you all know I’m much more into stream insects than anything with  a backbone.  We found a bunch of flat-headed mayflies clinging to rocks and someone brought over this stonefly:


I think it’s a perlodid stonefly, but honestly I didn’t look at the mouthparts because I was partly in charge of the group.  One of the teachers was looking for salamanders in a little puddle between a big rock and the shore and found one of these:

A roach-like stonefly!!!  I did a little happy stonefly dance and may have yelled a little as I tried to get everyone else excited about it.  Sadly, most of the group was much more interested in the salamanders to care about this amazing stonefly, but it didn’t diminish my excitement over it.  The same teacher found another one too.  I’ve seen specimens, but never a live one, so it was very, very exciting for me.  It’s hard to describe the joy you get from seeing something in the wild that you’ve been hoping to see for a while. It’s a pretty amazing feeling.

After the long trek back up the hill, we went on a wildflower hike.  The Smokies are known for their amazing wildflowers and there were many species in bloom.  We had the group do some nature journaling so they could just sit and look at the flowers for a while. Totally by accident, the trillium that I chose to sketch had insects on it:

Two longhorn beetles that ended up getting frisky as I drew my flower and a teenie, tiny caterpillar was starting to make a tiny hole in the petal when I left.  Insects always improve flowers as far as I’m concerned, even one as awesome as a trillium.

It had apparently been unusually dry in the Smokies for a while, but it rained hard our second night there.  We went to Cataloochee Valley the last day to hike a bit, look for elk, and learn about human impacts in Great Smoky and everything smelled clean and bright.  When we arrived back at the vans, we were treated to a HUGE group of butterflies puddling in the damp dirt:

This photo doesn’t even begin to do justice to the number of swallowtails in the area!  I suspect that because it had been dry for a relatively long time, the butterflies may have been hard up for the salts and minerals that they usually suck out of the soil when they “puddle.”  Dry weather means dry soils and limited puddling opportunities, but the rain seems to have brought the butterflies out in force.  I have never seen so many large butterflies in one place at one time in the wild and they were swirling all around us.  It was amazing!  One of the teachers wandered off a bit and came across this:

That’s a big bunch of butterflies on a big pile of scat, happily sucking nutrients from the wet surface.  If you look closely, you’ll also see a burying beetle.  The butterflies were doing a pretty good job keeping it away from the scat as they fed, so at one point it climbed right over the top of their wings in an unsuccessful attempt to find a place where it could feed also.  The beetle made the whole amazing butterfly experience even better!

Even though I was with a group and didn’t get to spend nearly as much time poking around for insects as I would have if left to myself, the whole trip was just fabulous. The teachers we had with use were amazing and very excited to get out into the mountains and we saw a lot of really excellent wildlife.  The insects were just a happy bonus!  But they make me want to go back and explore more.  Planning another trip there this summer!

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

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A Weekend of Clouds

The assignment for my Photography 101 class for the weekend was to explore light and suggested that you compare the light conditions at different times of the day. Given that I post mostly nature photos, my typical outdoor photography was complicated greatly by the cloudy conditions all weekend. Clouds, clouds, and more clouds:

clouds

That meant that the light simply got a little lighter and dimmer rather than changing the direction of shadows so I could really look at how the light changed throughout the day. However, clouds create this lovely, soft, diffused light, so I chose to use that to my advantage and explore signs of spring in my area instead.

The field station for the museum where I work has this amazing open sky and vast horizon compared to many other sites in this area:

Prairie after the burn

Because it’s up on a hill and it’s mostly grassland rather than forest, there’s often a harsh glare when you shoot photos of this field. This weekend, it had this lovely vibrant green color thanks to the low clouds and diffuse light. I took this photo as a sign of spring because the annual controlled burn takes place in the spring and you can see the results – no tall prairie grasses – in this shot. The burn took place just 10 days before I took this photo and the whole field was a blackened, ashy expanse after the burn.  Everything smelled like campfire. It’s amazing how fast things start to grow back after the burn!

I walked down to the pond at one point on Saturday. I’m leading a training for a dragonfly educational program for kids this week, so I have been looking for darners everyday in hopes we’ll be able to find some during the training. The pond looked lovely with the clouds!

Prairie Ridge pond
There was little wind for once too, so the reflections on the water were unusually distinct. However, off to the right of this image is a sort of “input,” a narrow channel where the runoff from the prairie flows into the pond. It’s been absolutely full of tadpoles for a few months now, and they were all coming up to the surface when I walked by:

tadpoles gulping air

Perhaps the cloudy conditions were slowing photosynthesis down sufficiently to drive the oxygen levels of the pond down? I’ve been told tadpoles come to the surface like this to gulp air. Apparently a lot of them needed a little extra oxygen as there were hundreds bobbing up and down in the water. There are 5 tadpoles breaking the surface in this shot, but all those bubbles were the result of other tadpoles surfacing!

There were lots of flowers starting to bloom, and they generally looked great in the diffuse light. The dogwood flowers haven’t opened yet, but the big white bracts had pulled back enough to see the little green flower buds inside:

dogwood flower buds
The bradford pears, a non-native species in North Carolina, have been putting on quite the show recently as well:

bradford pear blossoms
They smell awful, but the flowers are gorgeous! And there are small flowers growing in the ground all over the place, like these little violas:

viola blooms

There weren’t very many insects out, likely because it was relatively dark and cool, but I did come across an area with heavy tent caterpillar activity:

tent caterpillars
We get tent caterpillars in the crotch of trees in the spring and fall webworms at the branch tips in the fall, but neither in big enough numbers to cause problems for the trees. These are another insect I see early in the spring each year:

boxelder bug

The light made this boxelder bug look pretty good, but the overall darkness made getting a clear shot hard. The shutter speed had to be pretty low to get enough light for the photo, which meant that every tiny movement resulted in blurriness in the photo. Motion blur is alway a problem when you take macro photos of moving subjects like insects, but it’s doubly difficult to overcome when heavy clouds are making it dark and you don’t have a flash with you.

It’s been dark, cool, and a little rainy all weekend, so we’ll see what the insect situation next week ends up looking like.  Here’s hoping all those dragonflies and damselflies I saw last week make it through the chilly evenings this weekend.  There’s warm weather coming again just a few days from now!

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

First Dragonflies and Damselflies of 2015 (Friday 5)

I’ve been looking forward to starting dragonfly programs at work again this year, so I’ve been trekking down to the pond occasionally to check on the dragonfly situation there.  I saw my first common green darner on March 24, which is pretty early.  When I went to check up on them yesterday, I saw 5 species!!  And you know what that means: it’s time for Friday 5!  Here’s what I saw:

Common Green Darner

darner in cattails

Now this photo is truly terrible, but I couldn’t get my camera to respond as quickly as I’d like.  I challenge you to find the dragonfly in this photo at all!  However, there IS a common green darner in the photo, and it was one of six at the pond.  I saw two pairs mating, so 4 males and two females.  I suspect these are migrant green darners.  The nymphs in the pond are all still too small to be emerging and it’s been too cold for too long for me to expect them to be coming from our pond this early.  Between that and the fact that I’ve been hearing reports of big migratory and static darner swarms in Florida, I think that these are green darners stopping over on their way north for the summer.

Blue Corporal

blue corporal

 

These dragonflies come out very early relative to other dragonflies and I tend to see very, very young individuals on the rare occasions that I see them at all.  This is a photo from last year as the photo I took yesterday didn’t turn out at all, but it was nearly identical in appearance.  I find these when they fly, almost drunkenly, from an area near the pond to the grassy hill beside the pond and crash into the grass.  For whatever reason, nearly every blue corporal I’ve ever seen has been freshly emerged and its wings have hardened just enough for it to fly badly a very short distance.  The wings will darken a bit more and become a little less glossy once they finish hardening.  The body will also change colors and the abdomen will expand some as well.  This dragonfly had probably been an adult for an hour, so brand spanking new!

Common Whitetail

common whitetail

This photo is from last year too because I only caught a quick glimpse of a pair of common whitetails in tandem, zooming off over the prairie and they never came back.  I got just enough of a look at them to know that they were whitetails for sure, but definitely didn’t have time to get the camera pointed at them before they disappeared.  These are some of our earliest dragonflies each year, and one of the last to disappear in the fall.  If I had to pick a dragonfly to represent Prairie Ridge, it would be the whitetails as they are far and away the most commonly spotted dragonflies throughout the season.

Fragile Forktail

fragile forktail

This has been the earliest damselfly I’ve seen the last few years, and it was the first I saw this year too.  They are easy to tell from other forktails at the pond by the exclamation mark shaped pattern on the thorax, clearly visible in this photo.  They also tend to be smaller than a lot of the other damselflies you might see flying with them, though this one was quite a bit larger than the average fragile forktail I’ve encountered.  If you look closely, you’ll see that this one was in the process of eating a small insect when I snapped this photo.

Unknown Damselfly

No photo at all for this one!  I saw one blue and black damselfly fly past and then promptly lost sight of it against the grass.  I’d bet it was an Enallagma species of some sort, knowing what we have on the grounds and the coloration of the insect, but who knows which one.  Definitely didn’t get a good look at this one…

Dragonflies are back out!!  After what was a long and cold winter (at least by North Carolina standards), it’s lovely to see the dragonflies out and about again.  Who else out there is seeing dragonflies?  Anyone want to share the things they’ve seen recently?

Have a great weekend everyone!

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

Walks on Water (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

Hey everyone!  I’ve been missing for a while again, I know.  I had twelve 10-12 hour works days in a row last week thanks to a whole lot of things going on at once, so I’ve been basically drowning in work. However, yesterday I had an opportunity to go down to the pond to look for dragonflies for a little while for the first time in ages.  I saw my first dragonfly of the year – a common green darner (Anax junius) – and was very pleased to see it.  Also saw this little guy out of the corner of my eye skittering over the surface of the water:

water strider

There are insects out and about again here, including water striders!  Not very many yet, but some.  Spring is coming and the bugs are coming with it.  I can’t wait!!

Hope you all have a great week!

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

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Pests on Green Background

I’ve had massive problems getting photos uploaded from my camera’s memory card to my computer (think the card is on its last legs…), so I haven’t been able to do the last few posts I’ve wanted to do.  Hopefully I’ll get things working soon!  In the meantime, here are some aphids on a very green plant:

Aphids

Aphids

My part of North Carolina is unbelievably green right now!  It was looking bright and springy a couple of weeks ago, but then we got a few good rains and… wow!  It’s amazing.  Just amazing.  Even though aphids aren’t always the most exciting insects to look at, I can’t help but love the way they look against that amazing green.

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

Spring on the Prairie

It’s finally spring! Everything is turning green and there are insects everywhere again. Needless to say, I’m super excited! It’s still early in the green part of the year, so there are even better things to come, but I have to say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my first real spring so far.  I’ll always miss the wildflower explosion in Arizona, but wow is spring in North Carolina impressive!

The insects have been amazing recently! I’m starting to see things like this at the pond:

dragonfly exuvia

dragonfly exuvia

This is prime evidence that the dragonflies are becoming active, leftovers from the transformation from nymph (immature) to adult.  Those little white things are the lining of the last nymphal respiratory system, all of which is replaced every time an insect molts.  This dragonfly exoskeleton can only mean one thing: there are adult dragonflies out and about!  And there are lots of them.  There aren’t very many species yet, but I’ve seen green darners more than once, I just saw my first eastern pondhawks as few days ago, and there are dozens and dozens of these:

Widow skimmer

Widow skimmer

Common whitetails are, well, common at the pond at Prairie Ridge, but look how beautiful they are! What a gorgeous animal. The pattern on the wings is spectacular and the whites are currently really bright (I took this shot last summer, later in the season), so these are showy and beautiful residents at the pond. Now, if only the comet darners would come back…

There have also been a ton of these:

Eastern carpenter bee

Eastern carpenter bee

Can you see the eastern carpenter bee male hovering over that mess of mulch? The male carpenter bees have been defending territories around all wooden structures at Prairie Ridge recently. You can watch the females going in and out of the nests they’ve excavated vertically into beams and roofing supports.  I know they’re mildly destructive and we should probably try to discourage them from building nests in our wooden structures, but they’re just so darned charismatic!  And, you can tell the males from the females really easily and shock your friends when you pick up a large bee without being stung.  Stingers are modified egg-laying tubes (ovipositors), so only females can sting.  The bee in the photo is a male, as evident from the yellow (sometimes white) patch on his face and is incapable of stinging.  They keep finding their way into our classroom building, so I just pick them up and take them back outside.

Lots of our big butterflies are back! One of my coworkers spotted a zebra swallowtail last week and another saw a red spotted purple yesterday. Me, I’ve only seen the eastern tiger swallowtails so far:

Eastern tiger swallowtail

Eastern tiger swallowtail

They may not be quite as exciting as the zebra swallowtails as they’re much more commonly seen, but they’re still impressive.  The larvae feed on a variety of tree species, many of which we have on the grounds at Prairie Ridge, so I see them all the time.

A friend of mine saw fireflies lighting up on a warm night recently, quite early in the year. She’s an entomologist so I am confident that she knows what she’s talking about, but it’s so early in the year that the news felt wrong when she told me. But sure enough, I found this a few days later:

Firefly

Firefly

Firefly! In April! Wow. That’s just cool. I’ve been keeping an eye out for flashes in the early evening, but I’ve yet to see any myself. Rest assured that I will go frolic with them when I start to see them! I have a happy little firefly dance that I’ve done just about every time I’ve ever seen fireflies. I’ve never lived in a place that had them before, so getting to see them was always a rare treat and thhey were always a source of great joy when I was a kid. I guess I never outgrew that thrilled wonder that fireflies provoke and I don’t really care what people think of me, so I still run around chasing and catching them, even as an adult.  These days I don’t keep them in jars overnight because I don’t like waking up to a pile of dead fireflies, but I have an artificial firefly in a jar that I keep on my desk at work.  It makes me smile every time I bump it and it lights up and starts “flying” around inside the jar.

Of course, there are still a ton of these out:

seven spot ladybug

seven spot ladybug

Non-native ladybugs abound in Raleigh. I have to wonder why we have SO many of them here, but I see 9 non-natives for every 10 ladybugs I see. Sigh…

I’ve started seeing jumping spiders around too:

jumping spider

jumping spider

You all know how much I love jumping spiders!  This species seems to love the trailer where my office is located.  I’ve seen dozens of them on the trailer over the past 10 months, so it gets me wondering why they seem to like it so well.  Whatever the reason, I’m happy that I get to see so many.  They’re adorable, so who wouldn’t want them hanging out around them?

That’s just a little taste of what’s happening in the bug world here.  I’m super excited to see how the rest of spring and summer turn out.  There are still so many new things to learn and see in North Carolina!  While I often finding myself telling people that I don’t know when asked about natural things when I lead walks, I’m getting a lot better.  I think all the new learning opportunities, the new discoveries, have been the best part of my move to the south.  While I love Arizona and miss so many things about it, it’s also great to be in a place where everything is new and exciting, where I’ve finally gotten to see a real spring so I understand what all the excitement is about. I wonder what I’ll learn next?!

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