Monday, October 27, 2008

Not caterpillars!

Recently, while out exploring, a friend and I found these creatures. They look a lot like caterpillars.
But they are not! They are actually Willow Sawfly Larvae from the genus Nematus and will most likely turn into these.
How can you tell they are not caterpillars, you may ask? Caterpillars have 3 sets (or 6) real legs like all insects. They also have no more than 5 sets (or 10) prolegs. Prolegs are the flesh little blobs behind the real legs that help the caterpillar grip the leaf surface. Its a little difficult to tell in this photo, but this critter has 14.
Willow Sawflies are grouped in the order Hymenoptera. They are "cousins" to wasps, bees and ants. Their name comes from the odd ovipositor of the female sawfly. It can be used just like a saw. There are two "saws" set side by side in a groove underneath the body and can be shoved out and moved up and down. The female will use this to cut into plant material and deposit her eggs within the plant's tissue so they are protected.
Adult sawflies resemble wasps, but do not have the characteristic thin waist, or area between the thorax and abdomen, that most wasps do. Females usually have very noticeable ovipositors that would make one think they mean business, but these are never used as stingers.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

What Am I ?

Do you see the creature in the tree?

Its looking at you.

Now, I am sure you see it.

This is a Black-crowned Night-Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax. A truly awesome bird. Their loud "QUUAARRKK!" drew our attention to them; there were two sitting in trees next to the river. Black-crowned Night-Herons are fairly common throughout North America, although the populations did take quite a hit in the late 1960's due to DDT. Night-herons, as the name suggests, are nocturnal and crepuscular when they feed. They will roost all hunkered down in trees during the day and apparently we had disturbed them.

Black-crowned Night-Herons are opportunistic feeders, meaning, just like some guys I know, they will eat anything that is in front of them. They prefer fish, but will also take small mammals, amphibians, other birds, reptiles, eggs, crayfish, mussels, insects, worms, leeches, carrion, plants and garbage. This feeding behavior can help with survival. If one food source is limited, they can easily switch to another source. Raccoons and oppossums are other opportunistic feeders and everyone knows how prevalent they are!

Night Ravens, another name for these secretive midnight munchers, are bioindicators. (The Greek scientific name Nycticorax means night raven.) Since Black-crowned Night- Herons are high on the food chain, if their populations start to drop, scientists receive a heads-up on contaminations or other pollution problems in their ecosystems.StumbleUpon

Monday, October 20, 2008

Hauntless Halloween

This past weekend, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Holliday Park hosted a magical event called Hauntless Halloween. Hauntless Halloween has been going on for 15 years and has become a tradition for many Indianapolis families. Each evening, Mother Nature placed a spell upon the forest and the animals came to life. This is a great event for little guys who just aren't up to the haunted houses and other more scary venues. Through a partnership with the Indianapolis Civic Theatre, they were able to get some top-notch actors to play the parts of the forest creatures. (As a side note, many of the naturalists for Indianapolis Parks have played characters in the past. I have been a bat and a squirrel, and I am sure there are photos that can be used as bribe material floating out there somewhere. We all really appreciate the pros stepping in to do this event!!!) Later, the Act One Children's Theater entertained the visitors with pumpkin carols. (Photo by Adam Barnes.)

Jack-o-lanterns adorned the wall near the pond at Holliday Park
and added an eerie feel to the event. (Photo by Adam Barnes.)

Mother Nature was played by Mary Jo Rouse. Children and their adults had to promise to love the animals, take care of the earth and then spin around two times for the magic to work. Joining her were two wood fairies, Kathleen Craig and Tunie Snyder. Alicia King played Mother Nature on Saturday night. (Photo by Adam Barnes.)

Families were led through the forest and encountered various animals along the way. This funny frog was played by Cindy Collins. The croakster was a favorite with the kids with her snappy comebacks and quick ability to ad lib. She was training for the olympics and Michael Phelps had been giving her tips about sponsorship.

Next visitors encountered Heidi the Hummingbird from Canada who was on a trip to Mexico. She was stopping for the night at Holliday Park. Heidi was played by Denise Stockdale. Heidi engaged all the children by asking them to dance with her.

Lucy the poetic Lightening Bug, played by Claire Wilcher, lamented over the loss of her boy bug who ran off with, what she first thought was, a prettier lady bug. The children reminded her that she had a beautiful tail that lit up the night and that she was very special, too.

The very energetic coyote was played by Tyler Braun. Here he is imitating a "rrrrotten!!" raccoon who digs through people's trash. He felt he could help humans by taking care of their problem raccoons.

Visitors were treated to a campfire and the Act One Children's Theater entertained everyone with pumpkin carols, well-known Christmas carols adapted to Halloween. A crowd favorite was "Pumpkin Bells." (Photo by Adam Barnes.)

After the hike, families visited the nature center for refreshments and crafts. What a great event with a wonderful way to celebrate the crisp autumn evenings. Well done!!!


Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Love Story....

This post is rated PG.

My last post showed a Carolina Mantid, Stagmomantis carolina, caught in a Garden Spider's web. I was a little sad, because Carolina Mantids are a native species and are somewhat on the decline.

Recently, my friend John Howard had a few Carolina Mantids pay him a visit. He decided to play match-maker and buggy sparks ignited. This is a tale of how the love story unfolded...

Here is the our lovely female, Mary the mantid. . She is a beautiful gray phase, with dabbled markings on her body. She blends in nicely with bark and lichens, allowing her to be camoflaged from her prey. Such a delicate little flower. Errr, ummm, well in another mantid's eye, I guess. Mantids are such interesting creatures. They look alien-like and move so methodically and deliberately when they are hunting prey. But don't let them fool you! They can be lightening fast when they are catching their prey or trying to escape a predator.

And here is Max. What a dashing young fellow. Sleek, inquisitive, likes eating things while they are still alive... No, not something you would want to see on a human dating service application!
Yes, if you are not familiar with mantids, they many times will eat their prey while it is still squirming.

John found both these mantids around his deck in his back yard and thought they might enjoy being introduced. He placed them together. Max, meet Mary. Mary meet Max, and please, don't eat him. Many times, the female mantid will eat the male. Nature can be so weird, at times. I am so thankful I am not a bug.

Awww, they are hitting it off so well. Max is giving Mary a big hug. The male is smaller than the female in many species of the bug world. So, Mary is the bigger mantid, and Max is on her back.

And now they are mating. Hopefully, Mary will lay eggs this fall and in the spring out will hatch lots of little Carolina Mantids. The egg cases, or ootheca, of mantids have an odd appearance. They look like a blob of the foam sealant you spray in cracks to prevent drafts.

One of the reasons Carolina Mantids are on the decline is predation and competition from a bigger Mantid called the Chinese Mantid, Tenodera aridifolia. This beast was introduced from China in 1896 to help reduce pest populations. It grows up to five inches long. Chinese Mantids eat anything they can catch, insects, lizards, frogs and even hummingbirds. These pictures are a little gruesome, so don't click on it if you are easily squeamish.

I am glad John was able to help introduce these two "loveinsects" and help them possibly reproduce. Also, I am glad he was able to capture and share the story with us. Thanks, John!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Along Came a Spider...

I was collecting seeds around our wetland, yesterday. And there I discovered this beautiful orb weaver. It had caught a Carolina Mantid, Stagmomantis carolina, in its web. I watched, fascinated, as it wrapped its silk around its lifeless prey.

Man, I had wished I had seen the battle. Was it quick and painless, or was it a struggle, a battle to the end. Nevertheless, the Banded Garden Spider, Argiope trifasciata, was the winner and now it was consuming its prize.

I cropped the picture in a little closer. Here you can see the smaller yellow wings of the Carolina Mantid. Their wings reach halfway down the abdomen, while the Chinese Mantid, Tenodera aridifolia, a much larger mantid, has wings that run the complete length of the abdomen and is around 5 inches long.

Here is the dorsal or top view of the Banded Garden Spider. What a beaut! I love the distinguishing horizontal stripes across its abdomen. It reminds me of the squeaky tiger toy I had as a child. I chewed its ears off and carted the thing around with me, wherever I went.

I left the spider to its meal and carted off my prize of Bottle Gentian seeds. Tomorrow, I plan to blog a little more about the Carolina Mantid.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Environmental Adventure Day

Yesterday was Environmental Adventure Day at Southeastway Park. It is a big event we put on for Franklin Township Schools. Teachers are invited to come out to the park to enjoy an entire day focused on nature. And what a gorgeous day that was!! Unbelievable weather, I could not have asked for a better day!! Eighteen knowledgeable presenters taught sessions on birds, pond life, trees, reptiles, water cycle, recycling and more. Each teacher's class visited five stations during the day.

Since duty called and I taught the sessions on insects, my co-worker Miranda Sears photodocumented the days activities for me.

"Good Morning, boys and girls!!!!!" Chris Martini belted out to welcome the crowd of 425 students and 60 plus adults. Eighteen classes representing five schools visited the park yesterday.

Michele Conyer, Outreach Naturalist, taught a session on Extirpated Animals. The children kicked off their shoes and plopped down on plush furs to enjoy a fascinating walk through time.

Here is a Smilodon skull that Michele brought with her. How cool is that! Saber-toothed Tiggggrrrrr!!! Yep, I wouldn't have wanted to encounter one of those, no siree!

Roy Ballard from Hancock County Purdue Extension taught a session on plants and how they prepare for winter. The children went on a hike and learned all about seed dispersal, leaf loss and adaptations that assure the plant's survival.

Andrea Hopper, naturalist at Eagle Creek Park, taught a session on Reptiles and Amphibians. Here she is holding a box turtle and explaining all about its unique behaviors.
Jeff Jones from Purdue University 4-H Extension taught students how to use binoculars then they went on a walk to look for animal signs.
Thanks to all the presenters and volunteers that made this happen! We couldn't have done it without you!!! A special thanks to Anderson Orchard and Papa John's Pizza for their generous food donations!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Green Salamander and Eggs

It sounds like a bad attempt at a Dr. Seuss rhyme, I'll admit. In reality, it is a really fascinating life cycle for an amazing animal, the Green Salamander, Aneides aeneus. This species is a medium-sized (8–14 cm), dark-bodied salamander with yellowish green, lichen-like speckles across its body. Its body is also somewhat flat to get into tight crevices between rocks. It has square-tipped digits with sticky pads, which aid in climbing. Below is a close-up of the unique toes.

Normally, salamanders are usually found in damp environments, like pond edges, under rocks in creeks, or under logs or rocks in moist areas of the forest. Salamanders can breathe through their skin and the moist conditions facilitate this.

But these salamanders are found in rock crevices, usually of sandstone and sometimes limestone, granite or dolomite. They stay hidden during the day, then come out at night to feed and run around. The rock facings are cool in temperature, but it is not where I would expect a salamander.

The eggs of this salamander are laid by the female in the summer. These amazing eggs are held together by strands of mucus to the roof of a crevice and the female salamander will attend these clusters of clear eggs. The clutch of eggs can range between 10-32.

Normally, most salamanders will lay eggs either in the fall or spring, depending on the species, and the larval stage will hatch out and swim around in a vernal pool. But there are no vernal pools on a cliff. These salamanders will develop completely within the watery egg and hatch out as little microsalamanders, totally developed! Amazing!

These wonderful creatures are on the decline due to habitat loss and collectors. It is State Endangered in Indiana and Ohio. That is one of the reasons I will not post where we found the Green Salamanders. Collecting is a big problem. We are hoping public education and involvement will help this fascinating creature survive and not become extinct.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Happy Herp Day!

No, you didn't miss another made-up Hallmark holiday. (But, I would love to see the cards for it!) Herp Day, for me and seven friends, was Sat. Oct 4th. "Herps" is a common contraction for herpetofauna, better known as amphibians and reptiles. We were seeking toads, frogs, salamanders, lizards, turtles and snakes. And what a day it was...

If you want to have your own herp day, this is how you do it. First, get a few good friends together that love creepy crawlies. Then go out and look for 'em leaving no stone unturned. It is a great way to get exercise, enjoy the fall weather and most of all, have fun! And special thanks to John Howard for setting up this awesome day! Plus kudos to his wife, Tina, and Mom for preparing a most wonderful feast! (No, we did not eat anything we found that day; no herps were harmed during our foray.)

The first herp we found was a gorgeous five-lined skink. Quick and agile little booger. The young of this species have a brilliant blue tail.

Our next herp was very cranky garter snake. He did not like being a participant in herp day one bit and wanted no part of it. Poor Scott, the finder, was bitten a few times and musked. (Garter snakes have glands that produce a pretty raunchy odor, which they use as a defense.) Luckily, garter snakes have very small teeth. (Photo by John Howard.)

At this site Laura found a Marbled Salamander(which I will show another a bit later). We also found an American Toad, and a Fence Lizard. Pretty good start to the day.

My favorite stop was the next one, yielding lots of good plants, bugs and, of course, herps. Our best finds were three Green Salamanders, Aneides aeneus. A real rarity here in Indiana and Ohio, Green Salamanders are state endangered for both states. Normally, during the day they stay within the rock crevices, only to venture out at night. This one came out with some gentle coaxing. Green Salamanders have a fascinating life cycle, which I will blog about tomorrow.
Sarah found a couple of Fence Lizards, Sceloporus undulatus, hanging out near a shelter, where we had stopped for lunch. I was able to catch this microlizard, whose body is only about 2 and a half inches long. It was quite cooperative. I thought this shot didn't turn out because he was quick to dart away, but somehow it did.

At the same stop, in a nearby creek we found all kinds of salamanders. Dusky Salamander, Southern Two-lined Salamander and this critter. This Red Spotted Newt was marching right along, unafraid of anyone. And with good reason. I covered this species in a previous post. The skin of this adult newt is so toxic it can kill the equivalent of 250 mice. The juvenile stage, or red eft, is much more toxic, with the ability to kill 2,500 mice. You do NOT want to kiss this critter, no matter how cute it is!

Another stop later in the day yielded some other great finds. My first look at a Northern Red-bellied Snake, Storeria occipitomaculata . What a beaut! For you word nerds, occiput means "back of the head" and macula means "spot". If you notice, it has a small spot on its neck, right near the back of the head. John Howard is my lovely hand model.

Even though this is not a herp I was still excited to see it. I hadn't seen a Black Widow Spider for over 20 years. We had a few juveniles earlier in the day, but under a rock was this nice adult specimen. I like to pick up spiders, but this one I stayed clear of. A bite from the Black Widow can land one in the hospital.

John got a fantastic shot of these Longtailed Salamanders. What fantastic animals! Unfortunately, it looks like something snacked on the larger one's tail. These were found along a rocky area by the side of the road.

Our last stop of the day yielded a Marbled Salamander, Ambystoma opacum, on eggs. The brown roly-poly objects are the eggs. Marbled Salamanders breed and lay eggs in the fall. The female will stay close to guard the eggs. Sometimes, if there is plenty of rain, the eggs will hatch in the fall. In times of drought, they will wait until spring to hatch. Breeding in the fall and hatching in autumn or early spring give the larvae a head start. Since they will be bigger than all the other salamander larvae swimming in the vernal pools in the spring, the marbleds can eat larger prey and will even eat other salamander babies. It's a "salamander eat salamander" world in the vernal pool!
We had a total of seventeen species for the day. Not bad for it being a little late in the season and the dry conditions. Thanks to all for an awesome day in the field!