Sunday, July 31, 2011

Another Monroe County Butterfly Record

Red-banded Hairstreak by Corey Husic
Red-banded Hairstreak, a photo by Corey Husic on Flickr.

Earlier this summer, I found an Appalachian Azure near my yard in southern Monroe County. This egg-laying individual represented the first record of this species in the county. This past Saturday, while butterflying with Billy Weber near my house, I found another new butterfly for Monroe. As we were walking through the woods, we noticed a small hairstreak in the middle of the shaded path. The little butterfly took off, but eventually landed on a nearby fern. This butterfly turned out to be a Red-banded Hairstreak, which is normally thought of as a southern species. The only other Red-bandeds I have seen were in southern New Jersey. Farther down the path, we saw another one of these gorgeous butterflies. The larvae of this species are unusual because they eat rotting leaves rather than live, green leaves like the caterpillars of most butterflies.

The next two months are usually excellent for butterflying, as there is good diversity among the resident species, and occasional strays will wander in. Common southern wanderers include Little Yellows, Giant Swallowtail, and Fiery Skippers. Occasionally, butterflies such as the Common Ringlet will come down from the north.

Saturday, July 30, 2011


Every year, around the last two weeks of July, the Common True Katydids begin singing here around my house in southern Monroe County. This loud, chattering species is quiet up until this point, then incessantly sings throughout the warm nights of late summer and early autumn. Often living in the canopy of deciduous forests, the Common True Katydid is very rarely seen, but is frequently heard singing katy-did, katy-didn't. Both sexes of this species sing, unlike many of the related katydid and cricket species. The Common True Katydid almost always starts singing after sunset, with only an occasional chatter during the daylight hours.

Common True Katydid (Pterophylla camellifolia)

The broad, rounded wings are unique among the local Tettigonids (members of the katydid family). This species is also one of the loudest due to its sound-producing wing mechanism, but this ability renders the Common True Katydid flightless, except for weak gliding abilities. Although this species is primarily found in the upper levels of the forest, it can occasionally be found in shrubs and small trees closer to the ground. The individual photographed above was sitting in a small birch tree about four feet off the ground, but was not singing.

While the Common True Katydid may be the loudest and the most well-known of the katydids, it is not the only species that inhabits our region. The Common True Katydid is our only "true katydid" (subfamily Pseudophyllinae), but there are several species of false katydids, meadow katydids, conehead katydids, and shield-backed katydids. Below are small accounts of a few of the other katydid groups with detailed information about a locally common species or two from each group.

The first major group of these false katydids is the round-headed katydids. This group is similar to the Common True Katydid because they tend to have broad, somewhat rounded wings, but the wings are still more pointed than the true katydids. I often find these species around eye-level at forest edges and hedgerows. Many of the round-headed katydids begin singing around the middle of July, often a week or two before the Common True Katydids begin their full chorus.

One very common round-headed katydid is the Rattler Round-winged Katydid. This species is commonly found sitting in shrubs at or below eye level singing its rattle-like song. This particular species seems to frequently sit in the open, so they are easy to find unlike many other katydids. This species usually sings only at night.

Rattler Round-winged Katydid (Amblycorypha rotundifolia)

The meadow katydids are another group of very common katydids this time of year. A meadow katydid is unusual for a katydid, for it looks more like a grasshopper than closely-related katydid species. Compared to the previously mentioned katydid groups, meadow katydids are small and more brightly-colored. Meadow katydids also tend to have more intricate songs. I usually start hearing the first meadow katydids, usually the Short-winged Meadow Katydids, around the beginning of August. Meadow katydids will sing during the day as well as into the night.

The Short-winged Meadow Katydid is a small, but common meadow katydid species. This species tends to sit right-side-up on grass blades, whereas other katydids tend to either sit upside-down or vertical on the blades of grass. The call of this species is a high-pitched buzz interrupted by small ticks. One song variation of this insect resembles that of the Grasshopper Sparrow

Short-winged Meadow Katydid (Conocephalus brevipennis)

The conehead katydids, which are very closely related to the meadow katydids, are common denizens of grassy and weedy areas. In eastern Pennsylvania, almost every weedy field seems to have a population of these abundant, yet secretive katydids. The coneheads begin singing just as the Common True Katydids start, which is usually around the end of July. Members of this genus can be heard during both the day and night, but they are excellent ventriloquists, making them difficult to find among grass blades and weeds. Coneheads sing most frequently at night, but are also commonly heard during the daylight hours.

One of the most common species in eastern Pennsylvania is the Sword-bearing Conehead. This species is common in weedy fields where it often sits vertically on a blade of grass or the stem of a plant such as goldenrod. This species can be either green or brown.

Sword-bearing Conehead (Neoconocephalus ensiger) - green form

Sword-bearing Conehead (Neoconocephalus ensiger) - brown form

Another group of katydids that resemble grasshoppers are the shield-backed katydids. Shield-backs are named for the large plate that covers the thorax and part of the abdomen and wings. This group contains several native species, most of which are relatively uncommon and challenging to find. However, there is one non-native species that is extremely common and abundant in this area, the Roesel's Katydid (also spelled Rösel's Katydid). The Roesel's begin singing in late June, before many of the other katydid species. This species can be found singing its sustained buzz song in any field with tall grass, wildflowers, or small shrubs.

Roesel's Katydid (Metrioptera roeselii)

Although Common True Katydids are now starting to sing their loud, obvious song, and the Sword-bearing Coneheads can be easily heard in any field, my favorite katydids are the bush katydids in the genus Scudderia. The members of this group are all fairly skinny-winged, and sing weak songs. Members of this genus are difficult to discern from each other by appearance, but the songs are unique, making identification easier at night, when these katydids sing.

The Northern Bush Katydid is the species that is currently dominating the forest and forest edge understory chorus at night. The "song" of this species is a series of clicks followed by a series of tsits. I first heard this species singing during the first week of July. This species is often attracted to lights at night. I often find several sitting on the walls of the porch if the porch light is left on.

Northern Bush Katydid (Scudderia septentrionalis)

Another species of bush katydid that is common right now is the Curve-tailed Bush Katydid. This species prefers open fields over woods. Although extremely similar in appearance to the Northern Bush Katydid, the song of lisping sits rising in volume is distinct. I have seen these in the field near my house since early July, but they did not start singing until the middle of the month.

Curve-tailed Bush Katydid (Scudderia curvicauda)
For more information about these species and other singing wildlife, visit the Lehigh Gap Nature Center's Sound Field Guide.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Leafhoppers at the Porch Light

When people use lights to attract insects, they are often focused on moths. However, many other insects show up at these lights including beetles, flies, butterflies, stoneflies, and leafhoppers. Last night, while looking for moths (I'm up to 85 species for the month!), I also took a close at some of the the leafhoppers. Here are some of the more interesting ones that I found and photographed:

Japanese Leafhopper - Orientus ishidae

Alebra aurea

Tylozygus bifidus


Draeculacephala zeae

Monday, July 18, 2011

Some Interesting Insects

With over 85,000+ species in the United States, insects make up a huge portion of our biodiversity. Among these species, there are several that are easily observed by the casual naturalist, including the Monarch, a bumblebee, or a lady beetle. However, there is an entire world of insects right here with us that go undetected, either because the are small, nondescript, or rare. However, sometimes these unnoticed species are incredible beautiful, or perhaps they have an interesting story. Here are a few examples that I have found recently:

After seriously becoming interested in moths earlier this summer, I quickly learned about this small moth. This tiny species is an abundant denizen of the fern understory in the woods around my house, as well as a frequent visitor to my porch light. Named for the two rings visible on the basal areas of the forewings, the Hollow-spotted Blepharomastix (Blepharomastix ranalis), has one of the coolest genus names of any of the moths I've encountered so far.

The Imported Long-horned Weevil (Calomycterus setarius) is another insect that I frequently find on my porch. A small group of these guys can often be found blending into the wall. This beetle is only about 3mm long, so it can be difficult to find against wood or another tan or brown surface. This species is particularly interesting, as it can perform parthenogenetic reproduction, in which the female can produce offspring without fertilization by a male. This process allows this soybean pest to reproduce very rapidly.

Here's another non-native weevil. I caught this gorgeous Asiatic Oak Weevil (Cyrtepistomus castaneus) while sweeping branches of tall oaks. This species, like the previous species, can perform parthenogenesis, which allows it to spread rapidly after its introduction to this country.

Most people would hardly notice this insect-eaten White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) leaf, but to me, this particular piece of patterned foliage tells a story. Those whitish lines are the result of the larval from of Liriomyza eupatoriella, a leaf-miner fly. The fly larva eats the inside of the leaf between the upper and lower epidermal layers of the leaf, leaving these visible squiggly lines.

This Blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica) leaf also shows the characteristic squiggly lines of an insect larva. Unlike in the previous photo, this damage was caused by a caterpillar of the Ectoedemia nyssaefoliella moth.

While attempting to photograph an ant, I noticed a small, brown insect sitting next to me. As I took a closer look, I realized that the tiny insect was an extremely small grasshopper! At only 6mm, this nymphal Crested Pygmy Grasshopper (Nomotettix cristatus) is one of the smallest grasshoppers around. Due to its size and preference to stay low to the ground, this species is rarely detected. Unfortunately, this elusiveness also means that there is very little information published about this unique and fascinating species.

The final insect I'd like to share is a truly bizarre creature. When I first saw a group of these insects flying around a sweet birch tree, I thought they were little pieces of fluff from the nearby milkweed seed pods. This flying piece of lint is actually an aphid in the family Calaphidinae, the birch aphids. Keep an eye out for these unique critters the next time you pass through the forest.

I'd also like to mention a project I've been working on for a little bit. This project is a dichotomous key to the grass skippers of Pennsylvania. You can find the key here. After keying out to species, if you click on the species name, you will be directed to a page with more information about the species.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Walk Through the Yard

I start my afternoon walk at the garden along the east side of the house. The building has shaded the flowers, but that does not deter the brightly-colored Great Spangled Fritillary from taking a sip of nectar out of the Purple Coneflower. After enjoying the sweet liquid, the fritillary gently flaps his way towards the sunny section of the yard and alights upon a Silver Maple leaf for a brief second before taking off into the shaded forest.

The next place I visit is the small pond along the southeastern edge of the yard. As I step towards the water, several tiny, teneral damselflies flutter out of the grass, and a handful of dragonflies take flight and head towards the open water. Along the pond's edge, I spot a female dragonfly dipping her eggs into the murky water--she hovers just above the surface and lightly taps the tip of her abdomens onto the water's surface. A male whitetail guards his mate and chases off any intruder that approaches, but the female Spangled Skimmer is not as lucky, for she is left to fend for herself.

Other dragonflies are ready to lay eggs as well. This pair of Calico Pennants sits silently at the edge of the pond. The brightly-colored wings stand out amongst the sedges making this couple easy to find. After a few minutes of rest, the male, holding the female by her neck, flies out over the pond looking for a suitable location for his mate to lay the now-fertilized eggs.

The buzzing and colorful dragonflies are not the only insects at the pond. I search through the various grasses, sedges, and spike-rushes growing along the border of the pond and discover more odonates in tandem. A pair of Sedge Sprites sits motionless at the tip of a blade of grass--almost invisible to the casual observer. The male's iridescence shines in the sunlight, while the duller colors of the female have a subtle beauty of their own.

I head away from the water's edge towards a blooming meadowsweet situated above the pond. The flowers are filled with various pollinating insects: bees, wasps, beetles, and ants. One particular flower longhorn, Strangalia luteicornis, slowly eats the whitish flowers as he moves across the inflorescence.

After watching the insects on the Spiraea, I make way across the road into the open field. In this particular section, flowers are few, so I hardly find any butterflies. However, many of the pond-dwelling dragons are out to feed. A young male Widow Skimmer gently flaps his way from perch to perch, occasionally swerving to capture a small fly to eat. This guy is sure to be at the pond before long in order to find a suitable mate.

While following the skimmer, I come across a another dragonfly, this one dressed in black and yellow. Wings held up in the air, the Halloween Pennant balances on the tip of a Timothy stalk as the breeze blows it around. This acrobat gives me quite the show, but does not let me approach. I must keep my distance, or he will flutter down to the next appealing perch.

I soon find myself at the center of a milkweed patch with butterflies in every direction. I hear Little Glassywings as they skip past my ears; I see the tell-tale yellow and black flashes of a tiger swallowtail flying through the grass. A small black and white Lepidopteran flutters in front of my face. It lands on a Common Milkweed flower allowing me to see his black wings marked with large, white spots. Count the dots. This is a stunning diurnal moth, the Eight-spotted Forester.

The moth is intriguing, but a glimpse of orange catches my attention. I follow this darting speck until he too lands on a milkweed flower. This small, orange butterfly has recently emerged as an adult and is now taking advantage of the copious amount of nectar available in this patch of milkweed. This Delaware Skipper is a gorgeous cousin of the paltry Little Glassywings and Northern Broken-Dashes that seem to be everywhere at the moment.

The cooperative Delaware gives me a great opportunity to photograph him, but he is soon scared off by a larger butterfly. When the newcomer finally settles on the milkweed flower head, I realize that it is a Baltimore Checkerspot. I found one at the same location just a day earlier; perhaps this is the same individual. The checkerspot's pattern of black with orange and white spots is enough to make anyone fall in love with the species. Add the gracefulness of its flight, and you have one of the most gorgeous butterflies around.

Before long, the checkerspot is on his way; he glides over the field and into the grass and brush on the other side of the meadow. Fully satisfied with the sight I just experienced, I begin the walk back to the house. But after only a few steps, I notice a group of butterflies gathered together on a milkweed flowerhead: hairstreaks. The two on the lower flowers are Banded Hairstreaks, the common woodland species that I found here the day before. Above those, a Gray Hairstreak sits facing east. The Gray is a very common butterfly of grassy meadows and open fields. Despite being common, this is the first time I witnessed this species this year. At the very top of the milkweed plant sits a third hairstreak species. This one is shaped differently than the previous two and has a unique pattern of red dots along the edge of the wing. I recognize this as a Coral Hairstreak. Although the Coral is known for its affinity to Butterfly Milkweed, it will gladly take nectar from any available source. This is only the second sighting of this species in the yard.

I hear a rumble of thunder, so I head towards the house, finishing my loop through the yard with a smile of satisfaction and amazement.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Day of Butterflies

Today was all about butterflies. Early this morning, my family and I left for Fort Indiantown Gap (FIG), which is located in Lebanon County, PA. This site is an active military training location and is the only location in the eastern United States with a remaining population of the Regal Fritillary butterfly. Every year, the researchers from FIG lead butterfly tours that showcase the rare and beautiful fritillary. Here is a photo essay about my day at FIG as well as my butterfly findings in my yard this afternoon.

Soon after arriving at the first location for the Regal Fritillary, a few of the researchers caught a few butterflies to show the large group. They explained and showed the differences between the males and females, as well as the distinctions between the other fritillaries in the region: the Great Spangled and the Aphrodite. This is a female Regal.

A few of the butterfly watchers in the grassland at Fort Indiantown Gap. The grassland was originally created by military activity, allowing a perfect place for the Regal's larval foodplant, Arrowleaf Violet (Viola sagittata), to grow. Now, much of the Regal Fritillary habitat at Fort Indiantown Gap is maintained by controlled burns and mowing.

Although the Arrowleaf Violet is a necessary plant for the success of the Regal Fritillary, nectar plants such as this Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) are equally important. The adult butterflies cannot survive without nectar plants such as milkweeds and thistles.

Here is a male Regal Fritillary chasing a female. The butterfly on the right is the male, which can be determined by the row of orange spots on the hindwing. The female has a row of white spots (visible on the first photo).

Many of the Regals rarely landed, which made them difficult to photograph. This individual sat to nectar for a few seconds and allowed me to take photo.

The Regal Fritillary is the main attraction at FIG, but many other butterfly species (over 80) have also been recorded in the various habitats included within FIG. American Coppers, like the one pictured above, were fairly common along the paths in the grassland today.

Another fairly common species in the grassland is the Aphrodite Fritillary. This species resembles a small Regal Fritillary without the black on the hindwing.

One of my favorite butterflies of the trip was this Zebra Swallowtail that nectared on Butterfly Milkweed along the border between the grassland and the forest. The zebra-like bands of black and white, along with the red line and long "tails", make this an unmistakable butterfly of "southern" forests in the eastern United States.

As well as seeing good numbers of butterflies at FIG, we also saw quite a few dragonflies. This Halloween Pennant perched on this twig and occasionally flew off to catch small insects. Other dragonflies that we saw flying around the grasslands included Common Green Darner, Widow Skimmer, Twelve-spotted Skimmer, and Carolina Saddlebags.

After the trip to FIG, I did some more butterflying in the milkweed patch in the field across from my house. The first species I found was this Black Swallowtail nectaring on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). At first glance, this species looks similar to the Spicebush Swallowtail, but the complete orange spot-band identifies this as a Black.

The most abundant butterfly species in the patch was Little Glassywing. I did a quick count of these guys on the milkweed flowers and counted about 150 individuals.

At times, the Little Glassywing filled the flower heads of the Common Milkweed. Mixed in with the glassywings were other skippers such as Silver-spotted, Dun, and Delaware Skippers, and Northern Broken-Dash.

Northern Broken-Dashes have just started to emerge here in southern Monroe County. The glassywings are at their peak right now, but in a few weeks, they will be mostly replaced by this species.

Other common species like this Eastern Tailed-Blue visited the milkweed flowers too. This tiny, blue butterfly is sometimes difficult to photograph, but this individual sat still long enough for me to get a good photo.

Since I began butterflying a little over a year ago, I have looked for Banded Hairstreaks in the yard. Last year, I managed to find several less-common hairstreak species, but not the "common" Banded. Earlier in June, I saw reports on the PALepsOdes list of Banded Hairstreaks visiting Indian-hemp and Common Milkweed flowers, so I diligently checked every flower I came across hoping for one. After a week or two, the posts stopped, and I figured I had again missed the Banded Hairstreaks. Then, about two days ago, I looked out to a Common Milkweed along the side of the house and saw a hairstreak! I rushed out, and sure enough, it was a Banded. I was extremely excited to finally find one in the yard. Then today, when I went to check the milkweed patch and found over a dozen Banded Hairstreaks, I was amazed. Not only were the hairstreaks in abundance, they were also very cooperative and provided great photo opportunities.

At times, the hairstreaks shared the flowers with other butterflies.

While looking for hairstreaks, I noticed one that looked a little bit different than the Bandeds. This one was larger, grayer, and had a very different pattern on the wings. From a distance, I thought it was a Gray Hairstreak, a common hairstreak in this area. As I got closer, I noticed that the white lines on the wing formed an "M" and there was a distinctive white dot close to the base of the wing. These characteristics identify this individual as a White M Hairstreak, one of the uncommon hairstreaks on the property.

While meandering through the milkweeds, I glanced over to an area with thistles and noticed an unusual-looking dark butterfly flying low in the grass. I was unfamiliar with this particular flight pattern and coloration, so I went over to get a better look. When the butterfly finally landed and opened its wings, it was clear that my mystery butterfly was a Baltimore Checkerspot. This incredibly beautiful species is one that I had never seen before, and never expected to find in the yard. I spent several minutes just enjoying this wonderful butterfly and the amazing patterns of black, orange, and white on the wings.

The Baltimore Checkerspot has my vote for the most strikingly-colored butterfly in the region. When the wings are closed, the patterns become even more interesting and detailed. This butterfly was an awesome way to end an exciting and butterfly-filled day!

This patch of Common Milkweed has been incredibly productive for butterflies this year. Every year it gets bigger, providing more nectar for the butterflies mentioned above, as well as hosting numerous other insect species. I strongly encourage everyone who has a garden to plant some milkweed, for it will provide food for an incredible array of native insects. Nectar-eating adults of the skippers and hairstreaks will be attracted to the large clusters of flowers and the larval stages of Monarchs and Milkweed Tussock Moths will benefit from eating the leaves.