Thursday, September 29, 2016

Chimney Swifts

You may have seen some strange people hanging around Columns IV on East Sunshine, all craning their necks up. If you joined them you too could have had a stiff neck and the awe inspiring vision of chimney swifts swarming and plunging into one of the columns.

Barn Swallows on a fence - REK

Clinging to a chimney -
People tend to lump swifts and barn swallows together but there are significant differences. They both migrate to South America and build their nests on vertical surfaces but that is where the resemblance ends.  Swifts are unable to perch on a branch, wire or even land on a flat surface. They spend their entire life either flying or clinging to a perpendicular surface.  They migrate to North America from Bolivia, Peru and the Upper Amazon River Basin in the spring, frequently seeking out their previous nesting sites. They are frequently described as "flying cigars" or "bow and arrows" for their shape as they fly frantically across the sky. 
Flying Cigar -

Swifts historically have built their nests in hollow trees, forming a community that is frequently quite crowded. Life was good for a swift until the arrival of European settlers. As they expanded westward, they cut down trees, especially dead ones for fuel, a wholesale removal of nesting sites. The only good news was the stone chimneys they built on their cabins, providing a convenient nesting substitute.

In a swift tower -
The population of chimney swifts has declined precipitously across the majority of their range which extends across North America and Southern Eastern Canada. Home construction has changed and urban homes have started capping their chimneys to prevent nestings. Many of the old industrial smokestacks such as those in downtown Springfield have been torn down.  Also a change in the insect populations due to insecticides has likely affected their diet.

Swifts can entertain your pet
We always enjoy the return of the swifts to our chimneys. They make a faint twittering sound, barely audible through the fireplace doors, entertaining our schnauzer Shiann for hours at a time.  They arrive in late spring after fireplace season and after their brood has fledged they leave our chimney to gather in large numbers in larger structures.  Even then, they return to circle our house in the fall as an encore before heading to literally "hang out" with their friends.

Watershed Center towers under construction
Now there is a movement to construct nesting towers for swifts.  There are plans and videos for these structures, lined with wood and to resemble a chimney without the fireplace.  In Springfield this has been promoted and sponsored by Jim Fossard, an active GOAS (Greater Ozarks Audubon) member and passionate advocate for chimney swifts.  Towers are now in place at the Watershed Center at Valley Water Mill Park and at the Springfield Botanical Gardens. 

Chimney towers on a home
You to can have both an active fireplace for use in the winter and a home for swifts in the summer as described in this link.  How?  Don't cap your chimney and if you have a cap, take it off.  Meanwhile, you can see the swifts in action at some of the few remaining large collecting sites next year.  Bob and Beth Kick of our MN Chapter took this video which shows the action at Columns IV this week. The show starts 30 minutes before sunset and although most of the swifts are headed south for the winter some may remain.  Enjoy.

Thanks to John Schwartz of for generously sharing his photographs, and to Jim Fossard for educating all of us.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Hibiscus Plant Bug

Colorful bugs in a seed head - REK
At the Master Naturalist Bioblitz last Saturday, one of my favorites was spotted by Linda Ellis who was leading the plant team.  There were a lot of seed heads on the the Halberd-leaf Rosemallow, Hibiscus militaris, aka H. laevis,  along the bridge over the water garden.  While she was collecting seed she noticed these tiny beetles.

Multiple instars- REK
The bugs that I shook out of the seed heads were too small for my macro and traveled too fast for the microscope so they went into my tolerant loving wife's refrigerator.  These are Scentless Plant Bug larvae, formally called Niesthrea louisianica.  They are very colorful and noted to have a wide range of colors.

Chilling out under the microscope
Like their stink bug cousins they have a proboscis that drills into the plant and sucks out its juices.  We are plagued by Box Elder bugs with similar habits but these don't come inside to overwinter in our houses.  Instead they stay in the duff, mate in the spring and raise several generations over the summer. 

There are lots of mallows in nature including cotton and okra.  I wear cotton but have a pathological aversion to okra to the point that I delighted in brush hogging the plants that remained in our garden at the end of the season.

H. militaris larva on a toothpick
On the other hand, there is the invasive Velvetleaf (Abutilon theophrasti) which was introduced to the US from China in the 1750's to make rope but failed to be popular.  It can be eaten with some effort but so can many weeds.  It is a pest in agricultural fields and our little H. militaris has developed an appetite for it.  Introduction into fields has reduced the population of these weeds.

I didn't find any adults among the two dozen I collected but I am sure they are out there.  They didn't seem to have any noticeable impact on our mallow which were going to seed quite successfully.  This is just one more example of a food web, for good or bad, under our radar.

Details at

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Fungi Fotos

Split Gill (Schizophyllum commune)
The North American Mycological Association (NAMA) annually conducts a photography contest with entries from all over the world.  Here in Springfield we are familiar with Mark Bower's beautiful fungi photographs from his books and the exhibits that have toured the MDC Nature Centers.  He recently received three awards from the NAMA 2016 contest.

Red Raspberry Slime Mold (Tubifera ferruginosa)
The Split Gill (Schizophyllum commune) on the top of the page and the Red Raspberry Slime Mold (Tubifera ferruginosa) immediately above each got honorable mention in the pictorial category.

Aminita the snowman
My personal favorite was the Aminita snowman and the judges must have agreed as they gave him first place in the judge's option category.  It combines technique, art and whimsy.

There were "close to 1000" entries and only 24 awards given so he took home more than his share.  You can see the first through third place winners at this link.

The photographs that he submitted to the contest are all in this Flickr album including another favorite, "Dead Man's Toes."

"Dead Man's Toes" - click to enlarge
Mark's other albums are here on Flickr.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Monarch Followup

We recently posted Monarch Watch-out describing the Monarch adventures of Holly Welch and her sons, Ethan 11 and Caleb 13.

I asked for a followup on the family and they put together this show which ends with a video of the premier flight of one of their brood.  This is a great example of citizen science and I suspect will stick with the boys throughout their life.  You can see this very personal journey of two Monarchs and two boys at this link.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Long-jawed Orbweaver

Long jaws below - Linda Bower
Linda Bower sent me her latest video showing a Long-jawed Orbweaver cutting prey remains out of a web and other behaviors.  The first thing you will notice is that the spider is hanging upside down and moving across a horizontal web. It is taking up and presumably digesting the web material, the ultimate in recycling when she makes her next web.

"My, what big palps you have!"  REK
Long-jawed Orbweavers (LJO), aka Stretch Spiders are members of the Tetragnathidae family.  Their webs are parallel to the water's surface, built on grasses, reeds and other structures.  The design is perfect for capturing their main prey, insects such as mayflies, gnats and midges rising off the surface of the water. 

We previously wrote more details on the LJO including their habit of  "lip-locked" mating in this 2014 blog.

You can see all of Linda Bower's nature video's at this Youtube link.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Poison Ivy Sawfly

Mary Bennett (MN) sent me this image with psychedelic color right out of the '60s.  After a few frustrating minutes I sent it on to Kevin Firth who identified it as the larva of the Poison Ivy Sawfly, Arge humeralis.  As you probably already guessed, the larva feeds on poison ivy, Toxicodendron (Rhus).  It is not alone, there are over 100 insect species in the US that have been collected and reared on poison ivy!

When is a fly not a fly?  One rule of thumb is when its name is combined in one word as in "sawfly."  True flies of the family Diptera have their common name separated as in "House Fly."  A. humeralis is actually a sting-less wasp!
   Tom Klein CC
 Color variation - Tom Murray CC

This little purple cat will become an adult with a lot of unwasp-like characteristics.  For instance it lacks the typical wasp waist that is fashionable in most of the others creatures in the order  Hymenoptera.  Another is the resemblance of the larva to the caterpillars of Lepidoptera.

It is actually the differences in the larvae that will help me next time, if I can remember them that long.  Sawfly larvae have six or more pairs of prolegs, the leg like structures on the abdomen, while Lepidoptera cats have five and none on the first two abdominal segments.  Many of the sawfly larvae are able to squirt a noxious smelling substance from their last segment when they are harassed.
Seven pair of prolegs and counting, starting at the first abdominal segment.
The "saw" refers to their saw-like ovipositor that they use to cut into plants to lay their eggs.  This of course does no good for the plant and some species cause serious damage to cultivated plants.  On the other hand, A. humeralis has been considered as a possible biological control for poison ivy, a plant that 70% of the population is sensitive to.  Few of us would mourn its passing but that is an unlikely extinction.

Details on the Poison Ivy Sawfly are at this link.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Monarch Watch-out

Monarch caterpillars - Ethan Welch
Holly Welch and her son have been photographing their Monarch caterpillars as they headed to pupation and a not-so-funny thing happened on their way to that form.

Orange wing showing - Becky Arnoldy
First the good news.  She went out on Labor Day and found one of the cats that had wandered off to pupate on the house siding.  A few hours later it had transformed to the jeweled pendant of a chrysalis.  When you see one wander away from feeding, watch carefully and you may be able to see the marvelous transformation.  Keep watching and you may be able to catch the final act of the chrysalis before the grand opening.  It changes color and shows the wings as a coming attraction.

Anchor Stink Bugs dining on Monarch cat - Holly Welch
  Mike Quinn CC
Now the bad news.  Holly went out Sunday and while taking the chrysalis pictures captured this image above.  She identified it as Anchor Stink Bugs (ASB), Stiretrus anchorago, attacking their beloved cats.  You can see that it is shriveling up as the bugs' proboscis are sucking out its juices. 
These stink bugs ought to be called chameleon bugs as their colors and patterns are so varied as to be unrecognizable.  This Bugguide page shows what a wide range of colors and patterns they present.

  James Shelton CC
"Both markings and color are highly variable, but generally includes a variably-shaped dark central band running from the head toward the rear of the insect. The pale area on the right and left sides of the pronotum contain one to three dark spots (usually two). The dark color is dark blue to black. The light color may be white, pink, yellow, orange, or red."

In addition to the wide variety of  colors and patterns, they look different in shape as they pass through their 5 instars (molts) before achieving winged adulthood.  I think that Holly's specimen is one of the late instars.

ASB on Monarch cat - Ken Christison
Lots of the ASB pictures in Bugguide and other links show them snacking on Monarch caterpillars and even Milkweed Tussock Moth larvae.  This may be a biological predilection or just that photographers like Holly like to take pictures of Monarchs and catch the incidental ASB along the way.  I suspect that they are tolerant of the milkweed toxins found in Monarch cats although I can find no studies about this.

Thanks to Master Naturalists Holly Welch and Becky Arnoldy for their photographs.
More details on the Anchor Stink Bug is at this University of Florida site.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Black Witch

Witch on the porch  - Chris Barnhart

  - Jill Hayes
Chris Barnhart found this welcome visitor on his front door.  This is the Black Witch moth, Ascalapha odorata, a tropical species found in Florida and Texas year round.  In the late summer months it migrates north as far as Canada.  It has been reported in Newfoundland, and Juneau, Alaska.

First, the fun part.  The folklore for this species is rich throughout the tropics, a confusing mix of death threats and good fortune.  In Paraguay the belief is if they touch your eyes you will go blind. reports some of these other examples.
In Hawaii, Black Witch mythology, though associated with death, has a happier note in that if a loved one has just died, the moth is an embodiment of the person's soul returning to say goodbye.
On Cat Island, Bahamas, they are locally known as Money Moths or Moneybats, and the legend is that if they land on you, you will come into money.
Similarly in South Texas if a Black Witch lands above your door and stays there for a while you would win the lottery!
In Mexico, people joke that if one flies over someone's head, the person will lose his hair.  (I have never seen a Black Witch but this may explain my scalp.)  Still another myth: seeing one means that someone has put a curse on you!
How these stories developed across the Western Hemisphere with just this species no one knows.  It even reached the movies in "Silence of the Lambs where serial killer Hannibal Lechter inserted cocoons of Black Witch Moths into the mouths of his victims as a weird gesture of transformation.  The moth on the movie poster is a Death’s Head Hawk Moth, but the actual cocoon was that of a Black Witch."

The Black Witch moth is a nocturnal species that migrates at night.  It feeds on rotting fruit and may have been drawn to the Barnhart's overripe pawpaws.  For some unexplained reason they are frequently found on porches, carports and even on cars, although this may just be where these big moths are spotted by people not used to noticing the average moth.  With a seven inch wing span they are the largest moth in the US.

Black Witch caterpillar  - Jan Dauphin
  - Jill Hayes
Their large black stripped caterpillars feed at night and hide under the bark during the day.  Their host plants are a wide variety of woody legumes found in the south.  In our temperate area they feed on Honey Locust and Kentucky Coffee Tree.

Black Witch Migration 2012 -
The Black Witch migrates up from Mexico and south Texas in June, much later that the Monarchs.  This is probably because they migrate at night in higher altitudes where the air is cooler.  In 2003 a massive migration arrived with a hurricane Claudette.  Twelve other Owlet moths are migratory, some of them serious agricultural pests such as army worms and several other cutworms.

Insect migration is a large topic with various definitions that depend on scale and frequency of observation.  This link lists some of the known species.


Sunday, September 4, 2016

Common Thread-waist Wasp

This was on the rocky bank of Bull Creek.  It moved around rapidly but held still for shots from above.  It is a Thread-Waisted Wasp of the genus Ammophila.  They have some white or silvery dashes on the sides of the thorax which you can barely glimpse in the view below.  Based on its size of over an inch long, it probably is A. procera, the Common Thread-waisted wasp.

These wasps are wide spread in the Eastern US and fly from May through October in southern states.  The adults feed on nectar and the larvae are fed caterpillars captured by the females.  Like the Eremnophila aureonotata that was in the previous blog, they lay their eggs in a burrow and may be followed by satellite flies who lay their eggs on the freshly delivered caterpillar.  This is a form of cleptoparasitism (parasitism by theft), feeding their young of food captured by another species.
Senotaina vigilans - Tom Murray
"Paging Dr. Frankenstein" - Tom Murray
As usual, "Bug Eric" Eaton adds some interesting details.  The satellite flies are in the "Flesh Fly" family, Sarcophagidae.  Senotainia vigilans is a common suspect and the pictures by Tom Murray are to good to pass up.  It looks a Diptera's version of Frankenstein with the two halves of the head sewn together.  Some things you just can't make up.

Eric included the link to this interesting clip on solitary wasps which led me to this fascinating video that shows not only showing A. procera in action but the arrival of the flesh flies.

Thanks as always to "BudEric" and to Tom Murray for generously sharing his photography through Creative Commons.