Tuesday, December 21, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon

Image from Wikipedia.

The past weekend, I spent some time at my sister's house in Ohio. She had happened to rent the movie "How to Train Your Dragon" on my recommendation. I had already watched it four times and was eager to watch it again. Honestly, I had no idea why this movie had such an effect on me. Why in the world was I so drawn to it? Quite frankly, I was embarrassed by my obsession with this movie. So, over the course of the weekend, I watched it three more times. Crazy, I know. Not at all what I normally do.

Then I started thinking about why it had such an impact on me. It wasn't just the dragons, though they are very, very cool, I will admit. It wasn't necessarily the gorgeous animation, which is utterly superb or the haunting celtic music. It was the message. It completely resonated with me.

Without giving away the entire plot, there were actually four important lessons I took away from this movie. The first lesson was to be yourself, no matter what. The boy in the movie, Hiccup, was trying so hard to fit in with the other Vikings, but it was not who he really was. He didn't want to kill dragons. It wasn't he couldn't do it, he realized he wouldn't do it. No matter if the whole town has a different opinion, if you feel deeply about what you believe, stick with it.

The second lesson I learned was that many times people fear what they do not know. In the movie, everyone feared the dragons because they believed they were these evil, hideous creatures that attacked the village. For hundreds of years, that is all they ever knew. "Everything we know about you guys is wrong." lamented Hiccup. And, so it is with nature. People sometimes fear or dislike nature because of a bad experience or the lack of a positive experience. I can completely identify with this.

My arm with a large Bold Jumping Spider, Phidippus audax

I used to be scared of spiders. It took a very patient co-worker at Kings Island Wild Animal Habitat, Marvin Julien, to show me how amazing they really are. He took the time to explain their intricate webs and show me they were something to be respected, but not feared. Now, I can even hold them. And, when I think about the kids I come across each summer, many of them start camp afraid of snakes and bugs. I hope we have changed a few opinions over the years. I hope we have changed opinions by patiently letting the nervous nine-year old hold a snake. Or encouraging the six year old girl that has caught her first giant grasshopper. Lack of experience can also cause an opinion of disinterest. I have a birder friend who spent most of his life as a banker. He had no real interest in nature. Now, after he retired, he cannot get enough of it. Sharing nature with others is so very important.

The third lesson I took away was one of patience. This theme was interlaced throughout the whole movie. The boy had to be patient with the dragon and build trust. He had to be patient with the whole town that had an opinion of dragons that was ingrained in their psyche for decades. He couldn't just tell them what he knew, he had to show them. Many times we can talk until we are blue in the face, but to be patient with others and take the time to show them what you know will be what makes the difference. I know I am so very, very grateful to all my mentors that have taken the time to show me what they know, so I can share it with others. And, on the flip side, I am grateful for all the people that have allowed me to share with them. Being there the moment a person experiences something for the first time is priceless.

And lastly, one person is all it takes to make a difference. Yes, it may seem like what you are doing does not have an impact. It may seem like you have hit a dead end and no one cares to listen to you. It only took Hiccup's stubborness to impact the whole town in a positive way. Who knows how your contributions will affect others? Do what you love, do it well and others will surely benefit.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Park Visitor-Ruddy Duck

Today two young lads came into the park office and one was carrying a duck under his arm. Yes, I know this sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but unfortunately it is not. They found the creature hunkered down under a car in one of our parking lots. Poor thing wasn't putting up much of a fight, so I am guessing it was pretty tired. I grabbed a box to put it in to keep it quiet and reduce its stress.

I am pretty sure this is a juvenile or female Ruddy Duck. They have a pretty distinctive tail which is short with stiff feathers. I have only had the privilege of seeing them in the water, so seeing one up close was a real treat. However, I wish it had been under different circumstances. I called my friend Don Gorney, and wondered why it would be in our parking lot. He figured it was flying through, thought the parking lot was actually a pond and then tried to land. It didn't look injured, no obvious cuts, etc...so hopefully it will get some rest and be able to go on its way. It is going to a vet that was recommended by a rehabilitator in the morning.StumbleUpon

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Bird Bloopers

Since my friend Dawn was wondering about my awesome skills in pathetic photographic blunders, I thought I would share a few.

It's a swing and a miss. Yep, there were a couple of Carolina Chickadees in this shot, but not anymore!

A lovely photo of a White-breasted Nuthatch butt and back. Even though it is not a great pic, I still like the pattern of the alternating blue-gray and black along its back.

A Tufted Titmouse was perched up all nice on the edge of the feeding tray, then just to spite me jumped down when I pushed the button. Jerk.

And lastly, Demon Chickadee will steal your seed and your soul-Bwwahahahaha!


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

You Caught Me with My Mouth Full

I sat in front of the bird window Tuesday waiting for our power to come back on at Southeastway Park. With no computer and no lights, I figured to pass the time I could try to snap a few bird photos through our window. What I got were mostly photos of blurry bird butts, feathers and empty frames with only the window feeder in view. But I did manage to capture this sweet photo of a Carolina Chickadee snatching a seed. It looks almost guilty, like I caught it being naughty :)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Hearts a Bursting with Love

This time a year, when the landscape is dominated with shades of brown, my eye is drawn to anything with a bit of color.

The Eastern Wahoo, Euonymus atropurpureus, can be found in woods with moist soils. Another name for it is Hearts a Bursting with Love. The pink seed capsule bursts open in the fall to reveal a seed enclosed in a orange fleshy covering called an aril. I think it kinda looks like a cinnamon redhot.

The seed capsules curl back forming a heart-like shape with the aril looking like a drop of blood. Such a cool sight to discover, to stumble upon a shrub completely covered with all these miniature hearts.StumbleUpon

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sparrows and Buckeyes

It was an absolutely gorgeous day today. I could not believe we had a high in the seventies! And, even though there have been some cold days lately with lows in the twenties, some butterflies still lingered as if it were a nice summer day. This Buckeye, Junonia coenia, was a welcome surprise. I was amazed at how fresh it looked. We also saw a few Sleepy Oranges, Eurema nicippe. Not very common anyway and then finding them in November?

We came across a small flock of sparrows. We had multiple Fox Sparrows, always a crowd pleaser, with their rich reddish-brown plumage and butterball shaped bodies. One was such a brute, I had at first mistaken it for a Hermit Thrush when it was flitting around in the brush.

We also saw and heard many White-throated Sparrows. Some of them were juveniles who were still struggling with learning the song. White-throated Sparrows have to learn their song by listening to the adults around them. Males that are the best crooners attract the ladies. So keep practicing, boys! "Oh Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada!"

Hope you got outside today, too, and enjoyed the wonderful weather!

All photos by John Howard.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


In the summer and fall, one can encounter coneheads in and around fields here in Indianapolis. Or they might even visit your porch in the evening, if you have a light on.

No, not that kind of conehead! No need to fear an alien invasion of any sorts.

This is the kind of conehead I am talking about, a type of katydid. They are related to grasshopers and crickets. They are insects, not aliens, but they do have some bizarre alien-like body parts. I encountered this particular conehead on a hike a few weeks ago.

First of all, the forehead of a conehead is pretty distinct. It is, well for lack of a better description, ummm, cone-shaped. Compared to another katydid below, an Angle-wing Katydid , one can easily see the difference. They have a "conical fastigium" if you want to get technical or impress your friends. Or, you can just say they have a "pointy head".

Angle-wing Katydid, photo by John Howard

Coneheads have super long antennae that are chock-full of special sensors. There are chemoreceptors that detect pheromones and other scents and tactile receptors or "feelers"to interpret the physical environment. There is also the Johnston's organ located on the base of the antennae that is important in flight for sensing gravity, air speed and even the specific wing beats of a potential mate.

The female above, a Round-tipped Conehead, Neoconocephalus retusus, sports a long sword-like appendage called an ovipositor. Conehead females use the ovipositor to deposit eggs into the crowns of grass clumps. These eggs will overwinter and hatch out the following spring.

One of the weirdest cosmic adaptations of katydids (and crickets) are their "ears". They are not located on their head like ours, but on their front legs. They are called tympana. If you look on my photo above, the tympanum is the pale yellow patch located right below the leg joint or what would be our elbow.

You can see it a bit better in Wil Hershberger's beautiful photo of a Robust Conehead, above. The tympana are used to hear potential mates and other neighboring conehead's calls. The tympana can also detect vibrations in the vegetation, letting the conehead know there may be a predator nearby. The tympana can pick up ultrasonic vibrations like those produced by a hungry bat. In response to ultrasonic vibrations, coneheads will immediately stop singing. If they are in flight, they will quickly tuck in their wings and dive to the ground.
Coneheads produce sounds by a process called stridulation. On the bottom of one wing is a toothed structure called a file and on the top of the opposite wing is a raised structure called a scraper. When the conehead rubs its wings together, the file is drawn across the scraper causing the wings to vibrate producing sound. Each species of conehead produce a distinct song. To see a great photo of the file and scraper of a katydid, check out the photo here at Wil's site. It is halfway down the page. To hear a Round-tipped Conehead's call go HERE. To hear the call of the Robust Conehead, Neoconocephalus robustus, go HERE.

Coneheads are such fascinating creatures with interesting body parts. Hopefully, you will be fortunate enough to encounter one.
Thanks to Wil Hershberger for the use of his photo of the Robust Conehead and John Howard for the use of his angle-wing photo. Thanks a bunch, Wil and John!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ants vs. Gecko

I couldn't stop watching this video because I found it utterly fascinating. This is a time-lapse video of a dead gecko which was found by ants and completely stripped clean and disassembled in a little more than 24 hours! This really shows how efficient nature can be.


Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ribbon Cutting for the New Trail!

Wednesday, October 27th was the date for our official ribbon cutting for the new 2.7 mile paved bike trail at Southeastway Park. Quite a few folks were out to enjoy the fall weather and witness the ceremony.

Mayor Ballard gave a brief speech. He thanked the Department of Natural Resources Recreational Trails Program for providing nearly $130,000 to make this trail possible. “With this funding, Indy Parks created a sustainable resource for Indianapolis residents and visitors to enjoy for years to come.”

Indy Parks Director, Stuart Lowery, spoke highly of our park. “Southeastway Park offers a wonderful palette of outdoor spaces, shelters, ponds, prairies, and a unique center for programs,” said Director Lowry. “This trail will serve as a magnificent connection for those amenities while fostering an updated path for health and fitness, and we hope everyone finds time to celebrate and embrace this fully updated trail for years to come.”
Many of the Southeastway Park Advisory Council were present at the ribbon cutting ceremony. Our council President, Norm Laufer, is in the foreground. Norm volunteers many, many hours of time helping us with projects and events. Thank you, Norm, for all you do!

Another photo showing many of our advisory council members. Ted Roberts is in the hat and plaid shirt and Chris Martini, park manager, is in the brown jacket. On the bench, left to right, is Linda Schoppel, Harriet Roberts and Sue Carter chatting with Mayor Ballard. Russell Dove is in the red sweatshirt. The advisory council helps with fund-raising, events and volunteer projects. We greatly appreciate all their help!

The official ribbon cutting!
Come on out and visit our new trail! You are welcome to bike, run, skate or walk the eight foot wide trail which has two large loops, one that is almost two miles in length. Such a nice way to spend a lovely autumn day!

All photos provided by Jennifer Burrough, Marketing Coordinator for Indy Parks. Thanks, Jenny!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Little Miss Muffet

Little Miss Muffet would have been quite unhappy to encounter this...

While sweeping the front step for the mayor's big visit (more to come on this), I uncovered this little, er, big lady, hiding in the leaves. She was almost as big as my house key, when I measured her with it. I called Chris over to admire her. He promptly quipped "Better get out your gun... " There is a funny story behind this, which I will tell in a bit.

This is a Wolf Spider and I am pretty sure it is Hogna helluo, but I might be wrong. There are a lot of things that can be tricky with the identification of spiders. Anyway, the photos I have found match up pretty well. If any of my spider buddies think it might be another species, I welcome your comments. The scientific epithet helluo means "devourer".

Wolf Spiders, in the family Lycosidae, have three rows of eyes. There are 8 total, four smaller ones on the bottom row, two larger ones in the middle and two more on top. This allows the spider to see various angles in order to snatch its prey. Most Wolf spiders do not make a web, but rely on the element of surprise and a burst of speed to catch their prey. (Funnel Web Wolf Spiders , that live in the South, do make webs. ) Wolf Spiders do make silk for constructing their egg case and for laying a drag line for safety. The female Wolf Spider will carry her egg sac behind her, attached to her abdomen. She raises her abdomen off the ground while she is carrying the sac. Once the spiderlings have hatched they will ride on her back for some time.

You can see the eye pattern quite easily in this photo.

And now for the funny story... Chris and I had to attend a benefits meeting at the county jail. No, we didn't get put away ;) While there, a big commotion happened in the corner. People were jumping up and making all kinds of noise and jestures. What was the culprit? A tiny, itty-bitty yellow crab spider, not much bigger than a quarter inch. Some guy whacked it, it jumped off the wall and started to run along the base board and then another one squished it. Chris asked me what was going on. His response, "All these guys are carrying guns and they are afraid of a spider?" I giggled for about two minutes, visioning them drawing out their guns and aiming at the poor spider.

So, when I realized the mayor would be accompanied by armed body guards, I shooed Miss Spider under the building, out of harms way. I wouldn't want her to get shot. ;)


Monday, October 25, 2010

Yellow Witches and Spiders

Over the weekend, we spotted a Marbled Orbweaver spider, Araneus marmoreus. It was a rich orangish-yellow color with long red and white legs. Its common name comes from the marbled pattern on its abdomen. Some believe this pattern looks like a face.

I personally think it looks like a tap dancing caterpillar. But I might have a bit of an active imagination. If you look closely, you can see its top hat and three sets of legs.

Marbled Orbweavers may look big and scary, but they are actually very docile and gentle. I picked this one up a few times to position her for photos.

We also found yellow spider-like objects hanging off the limbs of a nearby tree. These are the flowers of Witch Hazel, Hamamelis virginiana. Yes, believe it or not, Witch Hazel blooms this time of year.

Above is a closeup of the flowers. The long petals give the flower an interesting look. The common name "witch hazel" has a strange origin. The "hazel" part is from the leaves which look similar to those of Hazelnut, Corylus americana. The "witch" part comes from the tree's use in divining rods to find ground water. Some believed divining rods were part of witch craft. Believers took a forked twig from the Witch Hazel and walked slowly around the area where they believed the ground water might be. The twig would dip when it was near the source of water. Some totally believe this to be true and others believe it is a complete hoax. Some even practice it to this very day!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Nature's Adaptations

On Wednesday, we had a round robin for the third graders of Acton Elementary. Great bunch of kiddos! Chris did a program on food webs, Miranda covered habitats and I did a program on nature's adaptations.

One of the topics I covered was camouflage. This topic always fascinates me! How an animal can blend so perfectly with its environment utterly blows me away. They don't have mirrors, so how do they know what they look like? A frog can't possibly see its back, so how does it know it matches the mud seamlessly?

When shooting the photos of the handsome Leopard Frog, I stumbled upon this Blanchard's Cricket Frog. Blanchard's Cricket Frog, Acris crepitans blanchardi, is a sub-species of the Northern Cricket Frog which is a Species of Special Concern for Indiana. (Also, very pleased we have lots of these around.) The frog caught my eye when it hopped. It was so cryptic it took me a while to locate it. Can you see it below? It is right in the center of the photo. In the above photo, look for the dark indentation and go down a little and to the left.

Below is another pair of photos I used for my program. These wonderful photos are from John Howard. John thought this was a dead leaf at first, until he saw it move! The caterpillar, a Rose Hooktip, Oreta rosea, is on the right side of the dead leaf.

Below is a shot of the caterpillar on a green leaf so you can see all of its parts. The "tail" is what intrigues me the most. It looks just like the petiole, or stem, of a dead leaf! The adult moth also mimic dead leaves having a yellow and brown coloration to its wings.

Thanks, John, for sharing your amazing caterpillar photos. The students and teachers really enjoyed them!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Leopard Frog

Today I spent a little time at our pond prepping for tomorrow's class. While there, I noticed a Northern Leopard Frog, Rana pipiens, floating in the water near the bank.

After admiring the frog for a few minutes, I used my net to gently scoop it out of the pond for a closer look.

The Northern Leopard Frog is a Species of Special Concern for Indiana. This means it requires special monitoring since its numbers may be in decline. I was quite pleased to find three using our man-made pond. We have provided a much needed habitat for this frog. The Northern Leopard Frog is also an indicator species. Its lack of abundance, in a habitat where it is normally found, can indicate there is something wrong with the health of the environment. It can give biologists a heads up that there may be pollution or another environmental problem that could affect human health, too. For this reason, I was also pleased to see the frog and happy I had fought to not allow pesticides or herbicides to be sprayed in the pond for "routine maintenance." Sorry to those I snarled at, but I don't like my frogs to be belly up.

Such a handsome frog with the lime green background and scattered dark brown spots. I would even kiss this one! :) After a few minutes of posing for pictures, it bounded into the pond and tucked into the vegetation becoming completely camouflaged.StumbleUpon

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Hayrides at Southeastway Park

'Tis hayride season here at Southeastway. Many, many families were out enjoying the fantastic fall weather. The crisp air, the cool autumnal breeze, the fresh scent of fallen leaves all come together to create an unforgetable experience.
A group of girl scouts were out enjoying a hayride this evening.
We still have opening for our weekend group hayrides. Please call our park office at (317) 861-5167 for more information.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


You could say I have arachnophilia, an affection for spiders. Instead of running screaming from a room where a spider has made an appearance, I will readily scoop one up that is in harms way and take it to a safer spot.

So, I was quite pleased to come across this beauty, a lovely Banded Garden Spider, Argiope trifasciata. The name "banded" comes from the tri-colored (yellow, black and white) stripes on its dorsal side, or top, of the abdomen. Trifasciata means three banded, with the root fasciatus meaning "enveloped in bands". My recent shots from that angle did not turn out, but you can view another one at a previous post here.

I enjoyed watching its acrobatic antics as it swung across its decimated web. I was not sure if one of our party had accidentally destroyed the web, or if it had happened at another time. The spider was starting to rebuild.

This belly shot shows the spinneret, the organ used to spin its elaborate web. (It is right under the black marking in the middle of the abdomen.) If you look closely, you can see the silk coming from the opening. Argiopes are orb weavers that construct the beautiful webs with the spoke-like patterns. To see one of these webs bejeweled with dew in the early morning is utterly breathtaking.

Above is a closeup of the spinnerets. Each species of spider has between 2 to 8 spinnerets that are usually in pairs. The spinnerets are comprised of hundreds of glands that produce different types of silk. A spider will spin different types of silk depending on the job and can control each gland to produce silks of varying components. The silk is a liquid solution that is pushed through long ducts that lead to microscopic spigots. It can control these spigots to produce a silk with varying amounts of stickiness and strength. Also, each spigot has a valve that regulates the thickness of the silk and the speed it is deposited. The spinneret will wind the individual strands of silk fibers together to form the different types of silk.

Above is an amazing shot of the spigots from an electron microscope, magnified 1,500 times. This shot courtesy of MicroAngela. It show the multiple spigots that comprise the spinnerets. By examining the photo, one can somewhat understand how the spider spins silk with varying strengths and stickiness. In the same way that yarn is comprised of individual fibers that are wound together, the spider's silk is made by winding various strands of silk fibers together. If grandma wants to make a hat, she will choose various lengths, textures and colors of yarn that she will use to knit the hat. In the same way, the spider can take various silk fibers, some that are sticky, some that are stronger, some that might be thicker, to produce a product it can use for the task at hand. If it wants super strong silk for its egg case, it might use stronger, thicker fibers. If it needs super sticky fibers for the center of its web, it can produce those, as well.

If one spends a little time learning how awesome and amazing spiders really are, I think less people would be afraid of these small industrious creatures!


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I'm Blue

Hearing the song "I'm Blue" made me think of the many blue flowers that are blooming right about now.

One of my favorites is Closed Bottle Gentian, Gentiana andrewsii. This beauty has blossoms that are always closed, making it look like it is perpetually in bud. Pollinated by bumblebees, one was caught in the act.

Blue Mistflower, Conoclinium coelestinum, for some reason reminds me of cotton candy. Its delicate feathery flowers are a lovely shade of periwinkle.

Great Blue Lobelia, Lobelia siphilitica, is a relative to the lovely cardinal flower. One of my friends was lucky enough to witness a Giant Swallowtail butterfly nectaring on it.

So, how could one stay blue seeing all the beautiful flowers that are out and about? Go outside and enjoy this awesome weather!