Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Camouflaged loopers

More goodies from down the street... What has befallen into my lap today but six darling camouflaged loopers (Synchlora aerata). These caterpillars are intriguing due to their habit of decorating their bodies with bits of shredded flower petals and leaves.

When they were first brought over and I was shown the contents of the plastic cage, I could not recognize them amongst the flowers and grass. Of course once one was pointed out, the others became obvious. But wow what a great defense!

Here is one mostly decorated.
And here is one who was missing all his camouflage! It likely came off during collection (the bits are only held on by strands of silk). However while I was preparing to take photos, it got ahold of one little leaf scrap to add to its back.These caterpillars typically only change their outfits when they molt, but some species (there are several decorators in this genus) will change their camouflage every day to keep it fresh. And of course if for some reason their plant materials are lost, they will dutifully replace them.

Lepidoptera news

I almost forgot! The other day, the boys brought over a beautiful moth. It's a waved sphinx (Ceratomia undulosa). They are supposedly quite common, but I don't think I've ever caught one before.In other lepidoptera news, my white dotted prominent (Nadata gibbosa) caterpillar is getting quite large. I also observed an interesting behavior, which I remembered from a photo in my caterpillar guide. When I went to change its leaves this morning, it curled up, placed its head over its back, and bared its yellow and black fangs at me! Unfortunately by the time I ran inside to get my camera and got back, I could no longer entice the caterpillar to react. From now on I'm bringing my camera every time I go outside (I keep my insects in a shed in the backyard).

Monday, June 28, 2010

Water snake behavior

Just another thing I noted and have been wondering about...
At one point while the northern water snake was hunting around the shallow water, she poked her head out of the water, and bobbed it up and down rapidly to create a bunch of ripples.
Was she trying to see if there was a frog sitting nearby?
What else could that be about?
Had never seen anything like that before. Only lasted about a minute before she went under again.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


I saw something today I had never experienced in the wild: watching a snake catch, strangle, and eat it's prey from start to finish. I have pet snakes, so I get to see this in captivity every week - but in the wild, I've only ever seen a snake eating once before (I got a glimpse of of a water snake finishing up a goldfish).

The neighbor boys were over, and my dad was walking with us around the pond, watching the northern water snake. She at first was basking on shore, but then she slipped into the water. The snake stayed near the edge, moving rather quickly. She was poking her nose around the leaves, and striking at frogs as they jumped into the water.

Finally she paused, with her nose out of the water. We approached slowly, and just as one of the boys commented "I wish we could see the snake eat a frog", we stepped forward, spooking a rather large green frog. The frog jumped right in front of the snake, which struck out and grabbed it by the head!

There was a great deal of thrashing around and muddying of the water as the snake tried to subdue her prey. Once I saw she had a good grip on the frog, I ran back to the house to get my camera. When I came back, this is what I saw:
Bad day for the frog, good day for the snake and a bunch of excited onlookers.

Art show

What a day! Sales were decent but slowed way down in the afternoon (when most people tend to come back and make purchases after thinking it over) because of rain. The day started out really nice, though, and there was a good crowd. I actually ran out of business cards, and had to write my website out on the backs of my PlushTeam stickers.

Of course I spent the whole day talking nearly non-stop, there are always such interesting people at this show (it was my third year attending). I met up with a lot of repeat customers, had my picture taken several times, and my aunt and little cousin came to help me out at the end of the day.

Overall it was a lot of fun, and I hope I can come back to NY next summer to participate in this show again.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Art on Lark

Anyone want to come keep me company at the Art on Lark festival today? 10-5, Lark street in Albany NY, my booth is near the middle of the street :)

Friday, June 25, 2010


My polyphemous moth egg finally hatched... into about a dozen tiny parasitoid wasps :(

I could not get a photo of the wasps, they were really tiny and all flew away rather quickly. Here is the egg, though, and you can see the hole the wasps made to get out.Sigh.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A bee-like spittlebug

I was examining the dogwood tree in our backyard today, as it attracts a wide variety of insects. A little spittlebug (family Cercopidae) caught my eye. At first, I could not tell which way was the right way around. It looked more like a tiny bee (or bee-mimicking fly) than a hopper! Perhaps a mimic of a mimic? The black and yellow warning pattern is common among many animal groups. The eye spots will confuse predators, hopefully causing them to attack the abdomen instead of the insect's real head.
This is the dogwood spittlebug (Clastoptera proteus). It sat quite still as I took photos, and it was not until it got up to walk away (backwards?) that I finally saw the whole picture - a very sneaky little insect!

Water snake

I had another encounter with the water snake currently residing in our pond. It was early in the morning, about 7:30, still a bit cool and cloudy. She was in the water just at the edge of the pond, her head sticking out, not moving.
I was able to get incredibly close, my camera only inches away from her face. I took photos for about five minutes before she finally got spooked (maybe she had been sleeping? It's hard to tell since snakes cannot close their eyes) and took off into the water. She retraced her path, though, and I got a quick video clip of her swimming.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

More eggs

Some of the lettuce in our backyard garden is maturing, with large stalks and flowers. I looked under the leaves, and found lots of little yellow eggs. I'm thinking they are probably cabbage white (Pieris rapae) butterfly eggs.
I collected about 8 of these eggs, hoping to care for the caterpillars until they reach adulthood.

Hey, that's not what you're supposed to be

When I blogged about finding some insect eggs, I guessed that the spiky ones were from a soldier bug. At the time I found them, I made a note that there was a parasitoid wasp sitting on the leaf near the eggs.

Well today I found one of the eggs had hatched, and what had emerged? A little wasp, of course.
I wonder how many of the eggs were parasitized? I guess I will have to wait and see.

If anyone is able to determine an ID from these photos, I'd be thrilled. They remind me of the little nasonia wasps we propagated in my high school biology class.

Caterpillar update

My little guy is growing like a weed - captured 6/14, it's now eight days later and the transformation is awesome. The caterpillar is now large enough that I feel a bit more confident in my identification: (Nadata gibbosa), the white-dotted prominent. We'll see for sure when it pupates and emerges as an adult.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Puzzle me this

I spent about 6 hours today putting together a puzzle... ever have one of those days? Here it is, with a few "in progress" shots.

It was a bit tricky to finish, as the pieces had to snap in tight... but finally, I managed to get it all together.

Turned out to be quite a pretty seascape (even if most of the animals would not be found in the same area). Not sure what I'll do with it now, probably leave it here at home as a decoration.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


I got to deal with a lot of click beetles (family Elateridae) during my undergrad research project at McGill. However, they were all preserved in ethanol or pinned. Today I was shaking some tree branches over a sheet (just to see if anything interesting would fall out), and came across a bunch of (live!) click beetles.

It is difficult to identify Elaterids without a scope, as some genera can only be distinguished by their claws. Many species do have distinctive markings, but the ones that are plain brown need a bit more work. My first guess for this one would be Melanotus.

It is easy to guess what click beetles are known for - clicking. But not just clicking... clicking while they jump!

The jumping mechanism involves a spine on the underside of the body that can be snapped into a notch, propelling it into the air. How far the beetle can jump depends on the surface it is laying on - in the video clip I took above, it was on a rock, and made it about 8" high. On my hand however, the beetle made it only a few millimeters, just high enough to flip over.

Little snapper

Finally, today I found a snapping turtle in my own backyard pond. I was doing my usual walk-around, watching all the tadpoles frantically swim into the deep, the occasional frog getting spooked... when I saw something moving in the leaves.

I stopped to take a closer look, and I could see the back end of a very mossy shell. I knew it had to be a snapping turtle, as painted turtles never let themselves get that mucky. It was about two feet from shore, and I did not have my net with me, so I stepped into the mud with bare feet and easily picked up the little snapper.

Well, little is in the eye of the beholder.
It was a little upset at first, making a few snaps at me, but it quickly calmed down for a few photos. By the location of the cloaca, I think it's a female. She went back into the pond, I bet she's been doing quite well in there with all the little goldfish.

Side note - snapping turtles STINK! Literally. Next time you get close to one, get a good whiff. I've never met a snapping turtle that didn't smell like something rotting... they have musk glands that can release a powerful stench when they are alarmed.

Part of the reason I was walking around the pond this afternoon was to look for a water snake... yesterday, the neighbor kids were over, and we saw a large northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon) basking in the grass just above the shore. After a few minutes of observation it swam off to bask at the other end of the pond. It was in blue (eyes very cloudy, and scale patterns barely discernible), so maybe next time I see the snake, it will have some fresh shiny scales!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Random craft

I think I might start covering everything I own in fleece.In another life, those were cans of lime seltzer destined for the recycling bin. Instead, I decided I needed a smaller, desk-friendly place to keep some of my sharpies (I used to keep this tacked onto my wall, but it's highly impractical to move around). Shown here is only a small sampling of my sharpies, I have 150+.

Covering the cans with fabric was rather simple. I first used tough wire cutters to cut through the top rim of the can, and used little scissors to cut neatly along the edge. I kept the fabric on using all-surface glue, and folded the fabric over the tops of the cans. They are all glued together, and the ribbon is also glued around them.

Here is my creation, along with a set of drawings I finished today.

Ebony Jewelwing

Today I chased down one of my favorite Odonates, the Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata). They are damselflies (suborder Zygoptera) in the family Calopterygidae.This ones flight was very quick and erratic, it took quite a quick sprint to capture it. The photo does not do the creature justice, the shiny metallic body of this species really needs to be appreciated in person.

Pupa update #2

In this post, I showed two little pupa I had found in rolled leaves. The smaller and plainer of the two emerged today.

It is definitely in the same family as the other moth, Tortricidae. The shape of the wings while at rest is quite characteristic, as well as its diminutive size - I did not have a chance to measure it, but I estimate the length from snout to wingtip to be about 4mm. They also have distinctive fringes at the edges of the wings.

So far I'm thinking it's most likely in the genus Acleris.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Asteroid

"Asteroid", what a name for an insect! (So named for one of its food plants, the aster).
They are also called the "Goldenrod Hooded Owlet Moth" (For their other favorite food).
I found a few of these caterpillars while sweeping some wild grassy areas along the side of the road. Small, bright green with yellow and black stripes, they are rather striking when you look up close.
I caught a photo of this one while it was cleaning itself.

I would like to take this opportunity to promote my graduate adviser's book - The Caterpillars of Eastern North America. If you are interested in identifying caterpillars, this is for you! I'd consider it an essential addition to any field guide collection. As any naturalist knows, caterpillars are usually overlooked in butterfly/moth guides. And if caterpillars are shown, they are usually an afterthought for the more showy species. Having a focus on caterpillars and their anatomy and variations is essential. This book has served me quite well so far this summer.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Pupa update

Two days ago I posted pictures of a couple small pupae I had found in some rolled leaves. Today, one of them emerged. It was, in fact, the one with the pointy head. Not surprisingly, this moth has a somewhat pointy head.

It also has two curious black fuzzy bumps on its back, and beautiful green eyes.

It flew off as I was taking photos (hence the photo in the pine tree), and I eventually lost track of it.

From the shape of the wings while at rest, my first guess for family is Tortricidae.

I think I might have the ID, Olethreutes connectum, based on this site. Let me know if you think I'm right!

Not a caterpillar

I was looking for caterpillars yesterday, using my sweep net to sample some tall grasses along the side of the road. I threw this guy into my jar, and it wasn't until I took it out for a photo that I realized it wasn't a caterpillar at all!
- Eyes. Caterpillars have six small eyespots on each side of the head, while this creature has only one.
- Pro-legs. Caterpillars have up to four pairs of prolegs (the fleshy legs along the body, *not* including the front three pairs of true legs with claws). This creature has 7 pairs that I can see, including the back end.
- Behavior. Whenever it is touched by anything, it thrashes around wildly.

It could only be one thing - a sawfly larvae!
Sawflies are in the order Hymenoptera along with the ants, bees, and wasps. There are several sawfly families - I'm not yet sure which family this larvae belongs to.

St. Croix - Fish

Of course, we saw hundreds of different fish species while snorkeling. Here I will highlight a few of my favorites.

First up, on the left, is a fish I had never seen in the wild before. Sadly the photo did not turn out too sharp, but you can still see the shape of the longlure frogfish (Antennarius multiocellatus). It is bright yellow and lumpy in order to blend in with the sponges - though individuals of this species come in a variety of colors. It was incredibly cute, and as I touched it, it only reluctantly moved. In fact it then tried to wedge itself between some sponges, spreading out its strange fleshy fins as leverage. It was found at Fredericksted pier.

On the right is a juvenile french angelfish. It is an old juvenile, as it appeared about 10" long - I have not yet seen a fully grown adult french angelfish with no stripes. The young ones are still impressive, though, as they flit between the schools of smaller fish. We usually see these at the tires, which were sunk out in the bay in front of the condo next door to ours.

We came across several large schools of fish at the Vincent Mason resort and Fredericksted pier. I'm still not sure what species they were, but they had beautiful green stripes. It felt like we were in the middle of an underwater documentary, there were so many thousands (millions?) of fish! They moved in the most amazing patterns, and as I swam and dove among them, I never once felt one brush up against me.

St. Croix - Stingrays

If there is one group I get excited about seeing while snorkeling around St. Croix, it is the stingrays. I have seen both southern stingrays (Dasyatis americana) and spotted eagle rays (Aetobatus narinari), though a few other species do live around the island.

The southern stingrays are usually sedentary, seen lounging on the sea floor. They are either in plain sight, or partly buried in the sand. This is not much of a disguise for a snorkeler who knows what shapes in the sand to look for. Sometimes you can also spot them while they are feeding - you will first see a plume of sand in the distance, and as you approach, the stingray will be concave over the sand, trying to suck up some prey.
When you swim close, they generally are not too perturbed. I do not try to touch wild stingrays - while unlikely, I don't want to risk getting stung. Also, I don't want to spook them too much, I'd rather get to watch them and take some photos. This little stingray had a wingspan of only about one foot, and started turning around as I dove down to take a photo. The sea floor was too deep for me to stay more than a few seconds, though, and he slowly swam away as I surfaced. My friend and I followed him for a while before some fish caught our eye.

The spotted eagle rays are a bit more elusory - never sitting still, they fly through the shadows. I don't always see them, even after week long trips of snorkeling at various beaches. This trip, at Fredericksted pier, we saw two large eagle rays float between the posts. They did not alter their speed or their course, even as the three of us swam toward them. It was a surreal moment.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

St. Croix - Puffed

Some of my favorite creatures to encounter while snorkeling are the porcupine fish and the balloon fish (both in the Diodon genus). Of course, we have to try to puff them up. I know this is aggravating to the fish... but it usually does not take much. Just poking them gently (wearing gloves!) or trying to grab hold of them will cause them to puff up. Some are more difficult to go after than others, though, and are able to out-swim us. It's usually the little ones we can get our hands on. We also limit our time with the fish, and let them deflate/swim away after a few quick photos.
(this is me)
I love getting to see natural behaviors, especially defense behaviors, in the wild. This is one I feel quite privileged to witness, being able to swim where they live and get a close up look at how they work. Nothing beats feeling a spine going through your glove in order to learn how sharp a porcupine fish spine is.

For those that know me, getting hands on with nature is a must... I don't understand how anyone can go snorkeling without gloves on.

Cute little leps

Yesterday I posted about some eggs I had found... well, I also found a few caterpillars and pupae.

This one I believe to be (Nadata gibbosa), the white-dotted prominent. It's an early instar, as the head is still large proportional to the body, and a full grown caterpillar gets to be up to 5cm long. I have other photos that better show the markings, but I thought this was a fun shot. I will be raising it to see if I'm right.

I would greatly appreciated help identifying these two pupae. They were both found in rolled leaves (I have yet to identify the host plants, working on that). Very small, about 1cm long. Definitely alive and wiggling. The one on the right has an unusually pointy head, and rather small wings compared to the body size.

Monday, June 14, 2010

An entomological day

Taking a quick break from St. Croix posts to look at some of the neat things I found in my backyard today - eggs.

First up, the one I'm most excited about - a Polyphemus moth egg (Antheraea polyphemus). It's rather large, rather flattened shape, about 2mm across, white on top and brown around the edges.

I found it on the underside of an oak leaf. I proceeded to search as much of the small tree as I could reach, with the aid of a chair... could not find any others. In this post I show pictures of an adult Polyphemus moth. I have never seen their caterpillar in the wild, so I'm really hoping this one hatches. Even if it doesn't, or if the caterpillar does not survive, I'm happy to have found an egg.

I also encountered the eggs of a few members of Pentatomidae - the stink bugs and shield bugs.

I believe the eggs on the right belong to the spined soldier bug (Podisus maculiventris). They were found on our quince tree. The eggs on the left were found on an oak tree.

On several of the oak leaves I examined, I saw bunches of very small eggs. Well, without any visual aids, I could only guess they were eggs, as to my eyes they were barely a bunch of little black spots.

Finally, I found a bunch with a lace bug (Tingidae) sitting guard nearby. Lace bugs are beautiful, and very small, only a few mm long. I took a few photos, and yup, they were eggs alright!

I was not sure if this was a coincidence or not, but sure enough, I saw a few more egg clusters with an adult lace bug nearby.

Lace bugs can be plant pests, but I'm debating whether I'd want to try raising a few. Could be fun.

St. Croix - Birds

Going to a Caribbean island, you'd expect to see and hear tropical birds - beautiful and unusual sounds, bright and showy feathers... but not quite so on St. Croix.

First of all, as far as domesticated birds, chickens run loose through the streets, neighborhoods, and even downtown Christiansted. Waking up to the sound of gently lapping waves and a rooster is an interesting experience.

One of the first birds we are greeted with, and accompanied by on the beaches, is the Zenaida dove (Zenaida aurita). It sounds just like the mourning doves we have back home, which has a rather eerie call. June appears to be their mating season, as the males were calling incessently while chasing females around the beach.

There are several other dove and pigeon species on the island, including the well known Rock Pigeon (Columba livia).

There is one bird that did make some very pretty sounds around our condo, but we could not locate the source. Finally, we tracked down a rather bland looking bird, but he sure had a beautiful voice! It was the pearly-eyed thrasher (Margarops fuscatus).

A family of American kestrels (Falco sparverius) also decided to make their home near the condo complex. The babies looked to be nearly full grown size, and did not sit in a nest but on tree branches. They could fly, but were however still very fluffy, and cried for food nearly all day long.

We once got to see one of the parents with a lizard in its beak, which was fed to one of the babies.

One of the cutest little birds on St. Croix is the Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola), which I unfortunately could not get a clear photo of. It is a revered bird on the island, the muse of many local artisans. Its bright yellow belly and black bandit's mask make it an amusing character.

Next visit I hope to spend more time in the mangrove forests, which harbor many more interesting bird species.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

St. Croix - Crab Races

In my last post, I mentioned the hermit crabs of St. Croix. They are not only interesting wildlife, but can be used for entertainment. This is a tradition dating back centuries, which has seen a resurgence of interest in some places. My family has gone to the hermit crab races since we started visiting the island in 2001.

Tito and Sue are a husband and wife team who have been organizing hermit crab races on St. Croix for almost 20 years. They go to several different venues each week, usually bars and restaurants, where they can draw some chalk circles on the floor. For $2 you can choose and name a crab; the name is written on a piece of tape on its shell. Our family tends to use many of the same names each time, such as "Crusher", "Grave digger", and "Widow maker". Many local businesses donate prizes such as boat trips, island tours, and bottles of rum.

For each race, the crabs are placed underneath buckets in the center circle. After a kazoo start and the cry of "CHARGE!", the crabs are released, which then mosey on towards the finish line.

There are some very important rules, which are: "Don't point your fingers, don't stomp your feet!", as these can scare the crabs. Tito always brings a roll of tape, and will tape up anyone's hands if they start pointing. The culprits are almost always adults, the children are quite well behaved. One man got completely taped to a pole!

More after the jump