Archive for the 'Insects, Fish, Frogs' Category

Jun 20 2017

My Heavens! We Have Fish

Panther Hollow Lake at Schenley Park, April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Panther Hollow Lake in Schenley Park, April 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

During Phipps Conservatory’s Schenley Park BioBlitz on 11 June 2017, scientists tallied as many species of plants and animals as they could find in only a few hours.  One place they looked was in the concrete-edged pond called Panther Hollow Lake.  And they found fish!

I’m excited by this discovery because Panther Hollow Lake has a host of challenges including low stream flow, storm water inundation and deep sediment (13 feet of sediment under 2 feet of water!).  In hot weather mucky algae floats on the surface and the lake stinks.  This will all be corrected as part of the Four Mile Run Watershed Restoration Project but in the meantime, yuk!

Despite these problems, four species of fish were found during the BioBlitz. They are:

* Blue gill (Lepomis macrochirus), a game fish native to eastern North America but introduced around the world.

Bluegill (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Bluegill (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

* Pumpkinseed (Lepomis gibbosus), a small fish native to eastern North America.

Pumpkinseed fish (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pumpkinseed fish (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

* Yellow bullhead (Ameiurus natalis), a native catfish that tolerates pollution.

Yellow bullhead catfish (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yellow bullhead catfish (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

* Goldfish (Carassius auratus), native to east Asia and commonly kept as a pet.

Goldfish (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Goldfish (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Truth be told, participants at my last Schenley Park outing pointed out a goldfish in the pond.  It was orange and white and huge!  I can guess where it came from.  Years ago someone said, “We can’t keep this fish at home anymore.  Let’s release it in the lake.”

Click the link to check out all the species found in Schenley Park during the Phipps 2017 BioBlitz.

 

(photo of Panther Hollow Lake by Kate St. John.  All fish photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

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Jun 15 2017

Fireflies!

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Adult firefly (photo by Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org)

Adult firefly (photo by Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org)

Most of the year I forget they exist and then one evening in early June I’m surprised by joy.  The fireflies are back!  It doesn’t matter how old I get.  I’m always excited to see them.

I love their yellow-green lights, their hard-to-track flight paths, and the way they raise their wing covers and pause … just before they fly.

 

Did you know that their Photuris pensylvanica species is the Pennsylvania State Insect?  Read more in this vintage article from 2011:

The Lightning Bugs Are Back

 

(photo by Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org; Video from Wikimedia Commons)

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May 25 2017

Flying Tigers

Tiger swallowtail (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Female eastern tiger swallowtail (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

There are tigers in the park, floating among the trees, gliding in the sunshine, visiting the flowers.

Eastern tiger swallowtails (Papilio glaucus) first appeared in Schenley Park in April.  Their caterpillars feed on many kinds of trees including wild cherry, magnolia, tuliptree, cottonwood and willow, so they get started early and can produce two to three broods per year.

You can sex this butterfly by color.  Female tiger swallowtails have iridescent blue on both sides of their hindwings.  The males are black where the females are blue.

While you’re looking closely to figure out their sex, notice that their tiny bodies are striped, too.

Eastern tiger swallowtail (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Eastern tiger swallowtail (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Striped all over, tiny tigers.

 

(photos by Marcy Cunkelman)

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May 14 2017

No Birds Here

Acres of farmland without plants and insects, Ottawa County, Ohio, early May 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Acres of farmland without plants and insects, Ottawa County, Ohio, early May 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Early this month I wrote about the decline of nighthawks, swifts and swallows and the parallel decline of their food supply, flying insects.  Why are insects declining?  In a comment Gene suggested that, in addition to insecticides, herbicides play a role.  Here’s why that makes sense.

I’m a city person so farm practices are somewhat mysterious to me.  Nonetheless, in the last 20 years I’ve noticed a change in how the fields look in the spring.  They used to green up with the rest of the landscape but now most of them are brown and as empty as parking lots like the one shown above.  There are no birds here, no swallows wheeling overhead.

The fields look different because herbicides are used to control the weeds. There are different poisons for different crops — for instance one for soybeans, another for corn — and the crops are engineered so they can grow in the presence of specific poisons.

Herbicides are a very labor saving device.  When applied in the fall they keep the fields weed free all winter right up to spring planting.  Consequently, the fields don’t have to be tilled (that’s why they look like parking lots).  The absence of plants means there are no insects, another benefit for the crop.

As the growing season begins you can tell where herbicide has been used because there’s a stark mechanical line between treated fields and the neighboring untreated landscape.

The telltale brown-green line: brown where herbicide was applied, green where not (photo by Kate St. John)

The telltale brown-green line: brown where herbicide was applied, green where not (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Here’s a field where there are birds.

This field is green though weedy, Ottawa County, Ohio, early May 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

This field is green though weedy, Ottawa County, Ohio, early May 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Yes, those plants are weeds.  They will probably be treated with herbicide soon and the field will turn from green to yellow as they die.

Because of herbicides and insecticides, large scale farming takes less work.  Millions of acres of U.S. farmland are truly empty now.  No plants.  No insects.  No birds here.

 

p.s. As I say, I’m a city person and don’t know much about farming so if I’ve got it wrong please leave a comment to correct me.

(photos by Kate St. John)

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May 11 2017

Tents In The Trees

Tent caterpillars in May (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Tent caterpillars in May (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

On Throw Back Thursday:

In May we see white tents in the trees made by some incredibly social caterpillars.

“Social” caterpillars?  Find out more in this vintage article from 2009.

Tents

 

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

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May 03 2017

A Common Thread

Common nighthawk chasing a flying insect (drawing by Bob Hines, USFW, via Wikimedia Commons)

Common nighthawk pursuing a flying insect (drawing by Bob Hines, USFW, via Wikimedia Commons)

Common nighthawks are my “Spark Bird,” the species that turned me into a birder.

Nighthawks are due back in Pittsburgh soon but their population has declined precipitously in this century.  Fifteen years ago I used to see flocks of 20 to 30 nighthawks swooping over our neighborhood ballpark.  Now I’m lucky to see just one.

This week I learned that chimney swifts and bank swallows are declining, too.  Most of it happened in this century. Trouble everywhere.  And so I wonder:  Do these species share a trait that’s causing their mutual decline?

Is it a problem with their nesting sites?  The answer is mixed.

  • In cities nighthawks nest on gravel roofs but gravel has been replaced by rubber.  City nest sites have declined so the answer for nighthawks is Yes.
  • Chimney swifts nest in chimneys. Some reports say the number of chimneys has gone down. (This has spawned projects to provide artificial chimneys.)  Other reports say the chimney count is OK. I’ve not seen a decline in Pittsburgh chimneys.  Answer for chimney swifts:  Maybe.
  • Bank swallows nest colonially in holes that they dig in the banks of lakes and rivers. These sites seem to be stable. Answer for bank swallows: Probably No.

Is it a problem where they spend the winter? Do they all go to the same place?   Not exactly.

  • Nighthawks spend the winter from eastern Ecuador, eastern Peru and southern Brazil to Argentina.
  • Chimney swifts winter in western Peru and the upper Amazon basin.
  • Bank swallows spend the winter in nearly all of South America.

Do they eat similar food?  Yes!  All of them eat flying insects!

There’s a common thread.  Recent studies have shown that around the world invertebrates including insects have declined 45% in the last 40 years and in Germany insect biomass has declined 81% from 1989 to 2014.  Though insect decline has happened across the spectrum, it’s not something that’s made headline news except for two species not eaten by these birds: monarch butterflies and honeybees.

With such a massive drop in flying insects it’s no wonder that the birds who eat them have declined.  And there’s another interesting side effect.  The fish that eat flying insects are declining as well.  Discovered in the U.K. in 2003, this problem threatens the fly fishing industry.

A massive decline in flying insects and the birds and fish that eat them indicates we have a large and widespread problem.  My hunch is that it’s something in the environment and it’s caused by us.

We humans are ignoring it at our peril.

 

Here are resources for learning more:

 

(drawing of common nighthawk by Bob Hines, US Fish and Wildlife, in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Apr 23 2017

Not A Bumblebee

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Carpenter bee (photo by Chuck Tague)

Carpenter bee (photo by Chuck Tague)

Have you seen bumblebees hovering and dancing near a wooden structure lately?  They look like bumblebees but they’re not.  They’re carpenter bees.

Carpenter bees are easy to identify once you know this trait:  They have shiny black abdomens, noticeable in flight.

Carpenter bee in flight.Notice the shiny abdomen (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Carpenter bee in flight. Notice the shiny abdomen (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a side-by-side comparison (not to scale) — carpenter bee on the left, bumblebee on the right.  Notice the shiny abdomen on the carpenter bee and hairy abdomen on the bumblebee.

Carpenter bee vs bumblebee (photos by Chuck Tague)

Carpenter bee vs bumblebee (photos by Chuck Tague)

Bumblebees build their nests in the ground.  Carpenter bees, as their name implies, build their nests in wood. In April you’ll see them face wooden structures, hovering and zooming.

If you see carpenter bees near your house should you worry?  I don’t.

Carpenter bees don’t eat the wood and they are barely social.  A few females may nest together but that’s the extent of it.  Their nests are not large colonies and they don’t have a queen.  The entire older generation dies off just before the new young fly so there’s little overlap.

A few carpenter bees have nested somewhere at the front of my 110-year-old house every April for at least a decade.  They never become an “infestation.”

Carpenter bees have a long foraging season and are good pollinators. All flying insects are suffering declines, especially honeybees and bumblebees, so we need every pollinator we can get.

I leave the carpenter bees unharmed and watch with wonder.

 

(photos of stationary bees by Chuck Tague. photo of flying carpenter bee from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

10 responses so far

Apr 06 2017

I’ve Changed My Mind About This Bug

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Closeup of a house centipede (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Closeup of a house centipede (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Every spring a house centipede shows up in my kitchen. Five years ago I would scream if one surprised me and kill it if I could.  Things are different now.

In 2012 they freaked me out so much that I wrote about them.  In the process I learned that they’re the beneficial owls of the bug world who chase down and eat small bugs at night.

Last week I learned just how much my attitude has changed.

A huge house centipede scampered across the kitchen floor and hid under my cat’s belly fur!  When she stood up it ran again and crawled into a baseboard crack.  I did not scream. I did not kill it.  My reaction was: Stay out of sight and eat those silverfish!

Read more about house centipedes in this vintage article and you, too, might stop saying “Ewwww.”

Try Not To Say Ewwww

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Mar 09 2017

Lyme Disease Will Be Bad This Year

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

White-footed mouse (photo by Brian Wulker)

White-footed mouse (photo by Brian Wulker)

In case you missed it, NPR reported on Monday that Lyme disease will be bad this year in the northeastern U.S.

Why?  Because this cute little animal, the white-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus), was very abundant last summer.

White-footed mice carry Lyme disease and host many black-footed ticks (Ixodes scapularis) on their ears and faces.  When the ticks bite the mice they suck in Lyme disease and transmit it later to us.

Ecologists Felicia Keesing and Rick Ostfeld figured out that when the mice thrive so do the ticks and in the following year, so does Lyme disease. 2016 was a spectacular year for white-footed mice, so watch out.  2017 will be bad for Lyme disease.  Learn more here at NPR.

What can you do to protect yourself?

Lyme disease is debilitating and, what’s worse, you can catch it in your own backyard.  Avoid exposure by using the techniques described in this April 2015 blog article:

Forewarned Is Forearmed

 

p.s. Learn how to safeguard your home in this blog article from last fall: Prevent Lyme disease in your own backyard.

(photo by Brian Wulker)

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Feb 06 2017

Magnificent Butterflies

Mariposa morpho, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Blue morpho butterfly, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip to Costa Rica:

While looking for birds in Costa Rica it’s impossible to ignore the magnificent butterflies.  Though February is a slow time for them there are many wonders to see.  Here are just three of Costa Rica’s 1,500 species.

The common blue morpho (Morpho peleides), pictured above, is one of 29 species in the Morpho genus.  Huge and beautiful with a wingspan of 5 to 8 inches, its color comes not from pigment but from the blue light reflected by its dorsal scales.  It hides from predators by closing its wings to show off its spotted brown ventral side (click here to see).  In the rainforest it flashes blue — on and off — as it flaps its wings.

The glasswinged butterfly (Greta oto) has no problem hiding since most of its 2.2 – 2.4 inch wingspan is transparent.  But does it need to hide?  Perhaps not.  Its caterpillar host plant is Cestrum, a member of the toxic nightshade family that probably makes these butterflies poisonous.

Glasswinged butterfly, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Glasswinged butterfly, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

With an 8 inch wingspan the owl butterfly (Caligo memnon) is the largest in Costa Rica.  It earned its name from the large ventral spot that looks like an owl’s eye, perhaps reinforced by its crepuscular habits.   Its caterpillars feed on Heliconia and bananas, so this butterfly is sometimes considered an agricultural pest.  Alas!

Owl butterfly (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Owl butterfly (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Butterflies are most plentiful in Costa Rica during the rainy season, June to November, so I’ll have to come back later if I want to see more.

Goodbye, butterflies.  I’m flying home today.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Day 10: Fly home

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