Monday, June 27, 2011

Some Neat Finds

While walking through the yard and woods on Sunday, I came across some neat things:

Just as I left the house, I noticed a small butterfly nectaring on the common milkweed along the driveway. At first, I took it for one of the ubiquitous Little Glassywings, but when I took a second look, I realized the shape was all wrong. Closer inspection revealed that it was a Banded Hairstreak, a small, woodland species that I had never seen in the yard before! The caterpillars of this species feed on the leaves of various oak and hickory species, both of which are common in the woods around the yard.

Along the edge of the woods, I came across this tiny American Toad crossing the path. This time of year, numerous toads and frogs can be found hopping through the woods as they leave the ponds and pools in which they were born.

In a meadow at the top of the property, I noticed an interesting insect sitting on a dried grass blade. This insect turned out to be this beautiful Black-and-Yellow Lichen Moth (Lycomorpha pholus).

As I continued along the path, I found a small yellow and black beetle sitting on a gray birch leaf. This little beetle is a Fourteen-spotted Lady Beetle (Propylea quatuordecimpunctata), one of the coolest looking "ladybugs" in my opinion.

As I reached the end of the property, I turned over a few rocks to look for salamanders, spiders, or whatever I could find. Under one of the larger rocks, I found this Northern Ringneck Snake. This is a fairly common species in the region, but one that is infrequently encountered because it hides under rocks and fallen logs.

Saturday, June 25, 2011


Beetles (order Coleoptera) are another group of insects that I am just beginning to learn. With over 350,000 described species in the world, beetles make up an incredibly large portion (about 40%) of the insect species on the planet. In North America alone, there are about 24,000 known species. This huge diversity creates an incredible identification challenge.

However, some beetles are relatively simple to identify and can tell us a lot about the environment in which they live. Here are a few examples of beetles I have found recently:

This first beetle belongs to one of the most well-recognized groups of beetles, although many people would not know it from a view like this, but rather from the bright yellow flashes it emits on warm summer nights. This beetle in the genus Photinus belongs to the family Lampyridae, the fireflies.

This Strangalia famelica belongs to a group of beetles known as Lepturinae, the flower longhorns. Members of this subfamily often have skinny bodies, long antennae, and (as the name suggests) they are often associated with flowers. Species in this group of beetles become extremely common as summer flowers begin blooming. I found this particular beetle on the flower of a swamp rose (Rosa palustris).

This guy is another flower longhorn. I found this Strangalepta abbreviata on a wild hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) that was filled with various beetles, bees, flies, and wasps.

This fuzzy beetle of the genus Trichiotinus is commonly found on flowers. Every year, I begin seeing these when the wild hydrangea starts blooming. In fact, I found this individual on a flower head of a wild hydrangea. It is thought that the appearance and flight of this genus mimic that of bees in the genus Bombus.

The Elderberry Borer (Desmocerus palliatus) is an uncommon beetle that is often found near (or in this case, on) its hostplant, American elder (Sambucus canadensis). Like the Strangalia and Strangalepta beetles, this beetle is another flower longhorn, but is much larger than those species.

Any avid gardener in the eastern half of the United States will immediately recognize this pest beetle as Popillia japonica, the invasive Japanese Beetle. This scarab beetle causes severe damage as it eats the leaves of anything it can find. The Japanese beetle is a true generalist, so it will eat the leaves, flowers, and fruits of many shrubs and perennials (native and non-native), but it seems to particularily enjoy plants in the rose family.

This gorgeous, metallic beetle is often confused with the previous species, but is shinier and more colorful. Unlike the Japanese Beetle, the Dogbane Beetle (Chrysochus auratus) is a native species that is found on plants in the dogbane family. I found this one on indian-hemp (Apocynum cannabinum) accompanied by a little syrphid fly (Toxomerus marginatus).

This final beetle was one of the more excitings finds of the day. While in the field during a late afternoon walk with the dog, my brother spotted a large beetle on a flower of timothy grass (Phleum pratense). The shape identified it as a large click beetle: Melanactes piceus to be specific.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Porch Light Naturalist

Most people have seen a light during a warm, summer night with numerous moths flying around it. The reason for this is often thought to be related to the idea that moths use the moon as a point of reference while flying around or migrating. To moths and other insects, a bright artificial light may look like the moon, so they use that as a guideline rather than the real moon. As a result, the moths get disoriented and flutter around the light.

This disorientation and movement towards the light (not technically "attraction") allows close observation of many insects species that would be difficult to find otherwise. For the past week or so, I have been going out to the porch light after dark and checking to see what shows up. Over the course of about one week, I have recorded about 60 species of moths near the light, as well as numerous species of other insects including mayflies, wasps, beetles, and stink bugs.

A common moth species this time of year is the Pink-barred Pseudeustrotia (Pseudeustrotia carneola). This species is easily recognized by the two light-colored bands that break up the dark areas of the wing.

Unlike the previous species, the Common Idia (Idia aemula) is a fairly plain species. This is a very light-colored individual.

Moths come in many shapes, sizes, and colors. This Grape Leaf-folder Moth (Desmia sp.) is a relatively small moth, with a wingspan of about 2 cm and a distinctive shape and pattern.

This yellow moth, Sparganothis xanthoides, is one of many species of moths that I had never encountered before.

As the name would suggest, the large Tulip-tree Beauty (Epimecis hortaria) is a gorgeous moth.

Another aptly named moth is the Beautiful Wood-Nymph (Eudryas grata). The beautiful patterns and colors on this moth made it stand out from many of the brown and gray species at the light.

This Leuconycta diphteroides is rather dull, but if you look carefully, the wings have very interesting patterns.

Although this moth appears very different from the previous picture, this is another
Leuconycta diphteroides. This one is much brighter and more colorful, so the patterns really stand out.

Most of the previously mentioned moths are relatively large and easy to see as they sit on the edge of the house. However, some moths require a bit of searching because their small size makes them difficult to find. One example of such a moth is this Diamondback Moth (Plutella xylostella), which has a wingspan of about one centimeter. Although hard to imagine, this species is a well-documented transoceanic migrant!

The Speckled Xylesthia Moth (Xylesthia pruniramiella) is another small moth that blended in with the wall on which it was perched. This species has distinct "ridges" on the top of its wings.

The Double-banded Grass-Veneer (Crambus agitatellus) is the most common small moth at the porch light this time of year. This species is also commonly found in the woods and meadows near the house.

Plenty of non-moth insects come to the light as well. This stinkbug, Banasa calva, is a species that I have only ever seen around lights at night.

While many of the moths come to the light for the reason mentioned at the beginning of this post, this Dimorphic Jumping Spider (Maevia inclemens) came to the light to find an easy snack.

This Ichneumon wasp in the genus Netelia is only one of several wasps that I see at the porch light each evening.

Mayflies, like this one, are frequently found at the porch light. A few weeks ago, during the BioBlitz at Jacobsburg State Park, lots of mayflies were found on the illuminated walls of the park office.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Trip to Ricketts Glen State Park

This Saturday, my mom, brother, and I traveled to the area around Ricketts Glen State Park. Our first stop was State Game Lands #57, which is located directly north of the state park. Upon arriving, we parked in a gravel lot situated next to this rocky stream. The stream was bordered with plants such as meadowsweet and silky dogwood.

The muddy parking lot was a perfect location for "puddling". Puddling is a behavior exhibited by many butterflies in order to collect minerals. Certain butterflies, like this Red-spotted Purple, are commonly found at puddles and muddy areas.

We found this White Admiral in the same parking lot. This White Admiral actually belongs to the same species as the previous butterfly. The two subspecies are different in appearance, but are almost identical in structure. The White Admiral is the more northern subspecies of the species.

From the parking lot, we walked along a grassy road that meanders along the creek. This partially wooded area was filled with dragonflies including this female American Emerald.

Chalk-fronted Corporals were another extremely common dragonfly along this road. Over the course of a few hours, we saw over one hundred of these skittish insects.

After a little while, the road became muddy, and we found ourselves in a sphagnum bog. The waterlogged Sphagnum moss provides an excellent place for certain unusual plants to grow. My mom spotted this round-leaved sundew, a carnivorous plant, growing along the edge of the trail. Sundew plants trap prey in the sticky "dew" on the leaves. The plant then secretes enzymes that dissolve the insect and allow the plant to receive essential nutrients.

The bog, which is very similar to habitats found farther north, is home to "northern" butterflies like this Common Ringlet.

Leatherleaf is another plant that is common in the bog on State Game Lands #57.

One of the most well-known bog plants is the cranberry. At the time we explored the bog, the flowers were just beginning to open.

The bog is filled with various grasses, sedges, and shrubs that grow on top of a thick layer of Sphagnum moss.

In the game lands between the bog and the road, we walked along a section of forest that was recently logged. The logging created perfect habitat for many bird species. While hiking through this area, we heard several Least Flycatchers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and White-throated Sparrows.

The logged area also opened up habitat for unusual dragonfly species. I photographed this Maine Snaketail after it caught a small insect, and then perched to eat.

After exploring the game lands, we headed into the state park. Our first stop was at "the Hayfields," a large expanse of grasses and highbush blueberries. From the top of the hill, we saw a large swath of purple flowers in the wetland below.

As we walked down to the wet area, we realized that the purple flowers were blue flag irises.

From the Hayfields we travelled to the main attraction of Ricketts Glen, the waterfalls. Along the wooded trail, we found numerous lichen-covered trees and moss-covered rocks.

The damp, rocky forest provided perfect habitat for plants such as this hobblebush.

The woods at Ricketts Glen are a wonderful place for wildflowers. We found several spring flowers that were going to seed. Trilliums were some of the more common wildflowers along with starflower, indian cucumber-root, and northern wood-sorrel.

After walking for a while, we finally reached the first waterfall. The sight of the falling water, green hobblebush, and textured bark of the hemlocks was a splendid sight!

The Falls Trail at Ricketts Glen travels down along one creek then climbs up along another providing great views of over twenty waterfalls.

While hiking along the stream, we found this mountain maple growing along the stream. Unlike many other species in the genus, mountain maple has flowers that grown on a cluster.

The most abundant wildflower along the waterfalls was northern wood-sorrel, which has flowers ranging from white to pink.

We had a great day of hiking and exploring!