Dragonflies in December

It has been incredibly warm along the east coast of the US until just a few days ago. My birthday is in mid-December and I spent part of that day outside collecting insects in the pond with a group of high schoolers who are doing a research project with me.  We had been worried it was going to be very cold, but it was a gorgeous 75 degrees!  And, I saw DRAGONFLIES on my birthday.  Not just one dragonfly, either.  No, I saw more than one individual and TWO species!  That’s never happened before, so I was thrilled beyond belief.  Thank you  El Niño!

I saw 6 of these dragonflies on my birthday:

Autumn meadowhawk female

Autumn meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum) female

That’s an autumn meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum), a dragonfly species that flies at the very tail end of the season.  If someone told me they’d seen a dragonfly in December, this is the one I’d think they saw because they fly later than most other dragonflies in the US. Though they’re not commonly reported so late, people do occasionally see them in December, even January in some years.  I saw dozens of them throughout November and up until the 18th of December.  There were so many out this year!

I saw most of the autumn meadowhawks resting on the wooden platforms we use for teaching classes near the pond or on bare patches of dirt on the ground:

Autumn meadowhawk  (Sympetrum vicinum) male

Autumn meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum) male

This particular species is not as inclined to spend all their time around the water as other species, preferring to perch away from the shore.  I did see a few fly out over the water briefly while I watched, but most were sitting on the platforms or the ground. Not surprisingly, they were all sitting in the full sun and with their bodies positioned so that they could soak up as much sun as possible. While it was very warm on my birthday and a few other days on either side, there were some cooler days mixed in too. The autumn meadowhawks were flying even on those days, but tended to make short flights from a warm sunny patch to another warm sunny patch rather than taking longer flights. They also let me get really close before they flew away.  They apparently didn’t want to fly more than necessary on the chilly days.

I’ll write more about the biology of this species at a future date because this is very interesting.  Autumn meadowhawks are rather strange dragonflies!  However, it was not the only species I saw on my birthday this year.  I also saw one of these:

Darner on big leaf magnolia

Common green darner (Anax junius)

A December sighting of a common green darner is definitely abnormal!  In the past four falls, the latest I’ve seen a green darner at the pond was September 26.  Seeing one in December was therefore shocking.  I have to wonder where it came from.  Was it passing through, a hugely late migrant that was headed south for the winter? Or did the warm weather trick a nymph in the pond into thinking it was spring so it emerged? Either way, I was very surprised to see this dragonfly in December.  It unfortunately whizzed past me at speed and I got just enough of a look at it to identify it.  It didn’t stick around to pose for photos…

North Carolina is certainly not the only place that has been seeing dragonflies far later in the year than normal this year.  I’ve heard reports and seen photos of autumn meadowhawks from places like Massachusetts and Maryland from December and a few from Canada in late November.  The warm weather seems to be prolonging their season so that people all up and down the east coast have made unusual spottings.  For this dragonfly lover, it makes me happy to see dragonflies so late in the year.  And, it’s only 4 months until the dragonflies start to come back in the spring in my area.  That’s not too bad of a wait.  Not too bad at all.

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

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Five Bad Photos of California’s Winter Invertebrates (Friday 5 – on Saturday)

Whew! It’s been a really busy few weeks! I recently received a grant to start up a citizen science after school program (which you’ll hear all about at some point – it involves bugs!!) and have poured almost every moment of my work time into that since the beginning of February. Then, right in the middle of that chaos, I attended the first ever conference for the Citizen Science Association. That took me to San Jose, CA last week! One conference activity that I really wanted to do and couldn’t was a bioblitz of downtown San Jose. If you don’t know what a bioblitz is, it’s a comprehensive biodiversity survey of an area, typically done over a short (or at least limited) time frame. People participating in the San Jose bioblitz were encouraged to photograph any species they saw and upload their sightings to iNaturalist, my favorite wildlife sighting website/app, throughout the meeting. I lead biodiversity survey programs that use iNaturalist all the time and I very much wanted to see what the people who oversee iNaturalist do when they lead programs, but I unfortunately needed to be somewhere else during the organized part of the event. However, the moment I had a few minutes free, I dashed outside with my superzoom camera to add some of my own sightings to the survey! Because it was California, it was lovely and warm and there were actually insects out in the middle of winter. I still haven’t worked out how to use my superzoom to take decent macro shots (I remain unconvinced this is even possible with my particular model…), but here are my five favorite invertebrates I saw in downtown San Jose!

Hover Fly

Hoverfly 1

I wasn’t at all sure I was going to get anything close to a focused shot of the many hover flies buzzing around the area, but this one’s not too bad, if a little far away… I honestly have no idea what type of hover flies these were (Toxomerus perhaps?), but I was thrilled to see them. Dozens of hover flies flying around in mid-February! Don’t think I’d realized how much I missed that sort of thing until I found myself standing on sidewalk in downtown San Jose grinning like a fool and pointing excitedly at hover flies. I would bet several passersby thought I was totally nuts, but whatever. I was just so happy to see insects in winter again!

Another Hover Fly

Hoverfly 1

Found this beauty sucking on a rosemary flower! I mistook it for a bee from a distance (how embarrassing!), but was very pleased to see it was really a hover fly when I got close. The spectacularly speckled eyes make me think this might be something in the hover fly genus Eristalinus (which would probably also make it non-native), but if you couldn’t tell from the previous insect, these are well out of my identification skill wheelhouse. Whatever it is, it’s crazy pretty if you get a good look at it! Makes me feel a little sorry for all those people out there in the world who don’t even know something like this exists.

Garden Snail

Garden Snail

I found dozens of these huge snails in a planter outside an office building and was instantly struck by their beautiful form. One of the nice things about iNaturalist is that you can ask other iNat users for identification help. It’s no BugGuide for insects and other invertebrates, but a lot of people came up with the same ID for this one and I think they’re probably right: garden snail, Helix aspersa. Though we do have a lot of snails in North Carolina, these snails were quite large and were a surprise in the dry environment.  They are non-native and considered a pest in California, though these are also one of the snails that end up in escargot in Europe, so apparently edible!

Aquatic Worm

Aquatic worm

Confession time: I have embarrassed many companions by squealing happily when I come across standing water and crouching down beside puddles to poke around for invertebrates. I found this little worm and about a dozen more just like it in a tiny puddle, just 1/4 inch deep, that had formed in a depression at the top of a light fixture in a park. Seriously, people must think I’m nuts… I was wearing a nice skirt, nice shoes, and a nice shirt with my hair pulled back in a tight bun – all business-like – when I yelled “Oooh! Water!!!” to no one in particular and plunged my hands into a random puddle. If you’re ever out in public with me, be warned that I might do the same thing to you. I have zero shame!

Isopod

Hoverfly 1

Who doesn’t love a good roly poly? This one didn’t roll up when I picked it up (sad!), but I thought its brown pattern was especially lovely for an isopod. These little guys are land-dwelling crustaceans, the lobster of the land! I love that there are little land crustaceans running around all over the place. If I can trust the iNaturalist users, this lovely brown one is the same species as the horde of more standard grey ones I found with it. Was hoping I had two species, but apparently I just found a weird one instead.

I absolutely loved getting out and looking for bugs in San Jose! I didn’t find all that many species, about 15 invertebrates in all, but that’s certainly more than I’ve seen in Raleigh for a while. I was also thrilled to discover that I was hot in the February sun! That happiness was short-lived however. After 11.5 hours and three flights back home, I stepped off the plane in flip-flops and shorts into 25 degree weather. It started snowing/sleeting a few days later and some schools have been closed ALL WEEK because of it! Nothing like being snapped back into reality the moment you get home…

For those of you that live in places that aren’t buried in snow or covered in a massive sheet of ice, what’s the best invertebrate you’ve seen recently? I want to live vicariously through you – I miss warm winters!!

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

Pining for Summer (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

I know I don’t exactly live in the Arctic or anything, but I’ve been really cold recently.  It’s cold in my office at work, it’s cold in my house (both are very poorly insulated with spotty heating), and I still haven’t gotten used to the fact that humidity makes it feel a lot colder than I feel like it should be.  It makes me long for days like these:

Dragonfly walk

Dragonfly walk.  Are those three little boys with the nets not ridiculously adorable?!

Ah, summer.  It can’t get here fast enough!  I don’t care if it’s close to 100 degrees and super humid and I have to tuck my pants into my socks and wear long-sleeved shirts to keep the grass and the ticks off my skin.  I just want to feel warm again.  Plus, bugs!  I miss bugs…

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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

Jumper in Winter (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

Look what I found a few days ago!

Jumping spider

Jumping spider

An adorable little jumping spider!  Didn’t expect to see one with the cool weather we had last week, but there it was, cute as could be.  Naturally, I had to take photos, but then I released it back outside.  I just love that metallic green sheen on the mouthparts!  Jumpers are the best.

Really cold weather coming for a lot of people this week – hope everyone stays warm!

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

My Mini Moth Mystery

It’s winter in North Carolina.  That’s not to say that it’s cold here everyday because that’s certainly not the case.  It was close to 75 degrees yesterday!  But, we have had some very cold days and several nights where the temps have dropped well below freezing.  It’s cold enough that there aren’t many insects out, so I’m always excited when I see one. Recently, however, there’s been one place that I know I can see live insects outdoors everyday, regardless of the weather or the temperature!  My main office is in this lovely trailer at the museum field station where I work:

Back of the office trailer

Back of the office trailer

Classy, eh?  As you can probably tell from looking at it, our little office building is not very weatherproof.  Cold seeps in during the winter, the AC seeps out in the summer, the doors don’t seal well, and the three rooms vary from too warm to too cold with no room in that perfect Goldilocks zone.  The trailer has two lights on the front, one by each door, and they come on at night.  Only one works.  For the last three weeks, a moth has been sitting in the exact same spot on the wall of the trailer when I’ve arrived at work each day, right next to the working light:

Moth

Moth

I wasn’t convinced it was even alive after a week and a half, so I poked it.  It moved a bit (though not much as it was a chilly day), so it has clearly chosen that spot.  It seems like a bad spot, right out there in the open on the white wall, but the moth apparently likes it.

I often leave work after dark, so I look for the moth every night when I leave to see if it’s still there.  I couldn’t say why exactly, but that little moth, hanging tenaciously to the side of the trailer day and night, amuses me.  Over the last few weeks, however, it’s been joined by other moths of the same species, one more every 2-3 nights.  Warm, cold – it doesn’t matter. Recently I counted 8 moths near the light when I left for the evening:

Moths at light

Moths at light – circles highlight the moths and the arrow points to one additional moth right next to the light that you can’t see in this image

Most of the moths are gone by morning; only that one moth I’ve been seeing for weeks in that one spot is left on the wall once it gets light.  I couldn’t say whether the rest have left under their own power or have been eaten by something, but the next night there will be just as many moths back by the light when I leave.  I suspect they’re hiding during the day and coming back to the light at night.

Now we all know moths are attracted to lights, so seeing moths near a porch light isn’t all that exciting.  What fascinates me about these particular moths at this particular time is how cold it sometimes is when they appear.  I don’t really expect to see insects out where they’re exposed to the cold and weather (these get rained on fairly often and got snowed on last week), plainly visible to predators, on days where the temperature barely gets above freezing.  But there they all are!  We had a few mornings with heavy frost last week and that little moth by the light was practically frozen solid, frosted over like everything else.  Yet it moved when I poked it after it had a chance to defrost.  It’s definitely still alive and is presumably capable of hiding during the day if it wanted to.

I’ve never seen moths on the wall of the trailer in the winter before, so this is a new experience – and one that I don’t know how to explain.  I’ve gone down to our outdoor classroom building to see if there are moths near the light on that building, but there never are.  The walls are brown, the light faces the forest instead of the prairie, and the building is largely unheated, so maybe it’s not as good a spot for the moths.  There are also no moths near the much larger lights in the parking lot, nor on the concrete building across the parking lot where the Musuem’s wet collections are stored (whitish, superior climate control).  There’s something about this particular spot on the trailer that these moths like.  My best guess: they like the light and the heat that oozes out of the walls.  The walls are still quite cold on the outside, but perhaps they are just enough warmer than the surrounding area that the moths can warm up a bit?

I might not understand why they’re there or how they are even capable of coming and going in such cold weather, but I enjoy my moths.  It’s nice to know that even on the coldest nights, I can go out and see a half-dozen little chilly insects hanging on the wall.  I might not live in a place that is warm enough to get lots of insects year around anymore, but at least I know those little moths are out there.  That’s good enough.

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

Cool Weather Moths (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

It’s gotten really chilly in Raleigh over the past few weeks.  We’ve had some decent days mixed in too, so it doesn’t quite feel like winter yet, but the insects are obviously on their way out for the season and have become rather sparse.  It was therefore with great pleasure that I came home on a chilly night last weekend and found a half-dozen of these little beauties on the molding around my front door:

Unknown moth

I have no idea what they were, but I was impressed that these moths were still out on a genuinely cold night.  Always interesting to see insects active when the temps are just above freezing!

Anyone else seeing cool things out still?  I want to live vicariously through you if you are!

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