Thursday, October 4, 2012

Odonata

Since the weather is starting to cool, some types of insects are going to start dying off for the year, including dragonflies and damselflies. So, I think it's fitting to do a post showing off some of the ones I found this summer.

I'll be honest, I am brand new to dragonflies. I am a bird guy first and foremost, but all of nature intrigues me, and this includes dragonflies. I've always been interested in them, but never to the point where I could identify any of them. I decided to change that this summer. I started taking photos, and then I IDed them later. This took away any time restraints I ran into. Dragonflies don't like to stay in one place, nor do they normally allow a close approach for long, if at all. Photos just make it so much easier.

Anyway, on to some dragonflies and damselflies. Fair warning, I do not own a great zoom lens, so some of these aren't the best quality photos, but they get the point across.

A gorgeous male Widow Skimmer (AW Marion State Park, Pickaway County). These guys are large, attention grabbing, and all around awesome. Why the name widow? Well, there's two reasons I've seen. Most say that the name "widow" was acquired because this is the only dragonfly species where the male leaves the female when she lays her eggs. Most male dragonflies hang around the females during egg-laying. However, according to Bug Guide (www.bugguide.net), "The species name means sorrowful or mournful, perhaps because the wings of both male and female seem to be draped in mourning crepe." Whatever the reason, they are really common in Ohio, especially around lakes and ponds. They definitely aren't hard to miss, as some of the smaller damselflies are.

Speaking of small damselflies, this is a Blue-Fronted Dancer (AW Marion State Park, Pickaway County). This guy was small, but the blue caught my eye. B-F Dancers like to perch on and near the ground, which is where this guy was found (The log was about 8 inches above ground). As you can see, this guy has large eyes. In fact, their eyes allow a 300 degree field of vision. These guys, like all dragonflies and damselflies, are vicious predators, although they hardly seem it at first glance. 
Speaking of damselflies and dragonflies, you may wonder what the difference is. Well, there are a few. Dragonflies are generally larger, damselfly thoraxes are narrow and almost the same width as the abdomen, and a dragonfly's hind and forewings are differently shaped. However, there is an easy, easy way to immediately tell the difference between the two if they are perched. Compare the two photos above. As you can see, dragonflies perch with their wings out and open, while damselflies perch with their wings up and closed.

This is a Halloween Pennant. Lovely colors, aren't they? Well, that's why it's called the "Halloween" pennant. When you look at them out in the field, those wing markings look black a lot of times, although they are technically dark brown. So orange and black wings... very Halloweeny. As for "Pennant?" Well, as you can see here, they have a habit of perching atop reeds and other plants. When they do this, they sway in the breeze like a pennon (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pennon) would atop a pole. They were everywhere at AW Marion SP a few months ago along the dam.

This is an awkward angle, but after discussing this with a few other Odonata (the order of predatory insects that comprises the dragonflies and damselflies) aficionados, we all decided that it was indeed a Double-Striped Bluet, and not a Familiar Bluet. One helpful, and knowledgeable, Odonata-lover agreed "that it's a Double-striped. Everything fits. Narrow eyespots connected by occipital bar. Magnified you can see the double stripe on the left side, it also has a pale middorsal carina which only a couple of other eastern species have. There is a black line on top of segment 3 and the markings on S4-6 are arrow-shaped." Anyway, this guy was really tiny, but once again, the blue catches your eye as soon as you see him dart to another plant.
 
The last one for this post: an Orange Bluet. Now these guys were small. And on the day I took this photo at AW Marion State Park a few weeks ago, they were everywhere. Dozens and dozens.
Dragonflies and damselflies are a really cool part of spring, summer, and fall, and they're definitely worth a closer look by you nature lovers (if you don't already). People overlook insects and arachnids, but once you start looking closely at them, you find them to be tiny, awesome, beauties of nature.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Monarchs, Bees, and Aster

So another post about A.W. Marion State Park critters. I know so far this blog has been insects and arachnids, but give it time. I'll be getting more things here soon. 

Anyway, on to some more colorful creatures and plants.

A female Monarch butterfly. You can tell it is a female by the dark lines on the wings. This one was very cooperative with my camera and I. They're quite common, but still so beautiful. The colors, the contrast, the size, everything about Monarchs is awesome. They're on their way south right now. In fact, a few days ago, I counted 20 Monarchs moving through my yard in half an hour. Since then, I've seen none. Monarchs have four generations a year. Of those four, three generations live and die up here, and then the fourth migrates down to Mexico to hibernate through the winter. Monarch caterpillars require only the Milkweed plant for food, but adults can drink the nectar of any flowering plant. Milkweed is declining in some areas, for example along roads due to human intervention, and this has led to a recent decline in Monarch populations. Sometimes we need to let nature be...well, nature.
This is a female Leafcutter Bee on an Aster flower. I am not sure which Aster it is; it could be New England or New York Aster (or another species. If you can ID it correctly, please comment). Leafcutter Bees are native bees that get their name from their habit of cutting the leaves of plants for their nest cells. They are important for pollination, as this one is currently partaking in. They aren't aggressive like other bees in Ohio. They will sting, but only if you handle it and make it feel in danger.
A wildflower, most likely some type of Aster. I am not a good flower person as of yet.

Some Spiders

Fall is upon us, and you might have noticed an increase in spiders, especially large orbweavers. You might be wondering why the sudden increase in spiders, but there actually hasn't been an increase.  The spiders people are noticing now have been spending the entire summer eating bug after bug and using that energy to grow larger and larger. Of course, the larger the spider (or any animal for that matter), the better the chance people have of noticing it. The majority of these conspicuous spiders are females. They've been trying to gain mass (and therefore energy) to produce the eggs for the next generation. Spiders are a varied bunch and have a variety of life cycles. While some spiders, especially web-spinning spiders, can live for a handful of years, most individuals don't even make it through the summer due to predation, parasites, and other factors. Many will hatch in the Spring, live through the Summer, lay eggs, and then die in the Autumn (as everyone familiar with Charlotte's Web knows).

Natural histories aside, here's a few very cool spiders I recently found at A.W. Marion State Park, in Pickaway County, Ohio.

Spider number one. This is a Hentz's Orbweaver, or Neoscona crucifera. I found it hiding out on the half mile trail located near the dog beach. It was a pretty large spider, and that is even with it sitting all bunched up like this. Orbweavers, like this one, are well known for the circular webs they spin, the "classic" spider web if you will.

Orbweavers, family Araneidae, come in a wide variety of colors and patterns. For example, the previous one we saw was reddish-orange, while this one is much darker with contrasting white patches. This species is the Arabesque Orbweaver, Neoscona arabesca. This one was also hiding out among the vegetation waiting for night to come. Once the sun starts to set, this female will come out and rebuild that classic orb web to try and catch some goodies, like maybe a Bristly Cutworm moth. Web-spinning spiders, such as orbweavers, actually rebuild their web every day, which might come to a surprise to most people. Although the material is relatively strong, daily wear on a web creates holes while "trash" might also collect at the same time, making the web more visible to potential prey. To ensure a productive night, these spiders will tear down their old web and build a new one for that day.

Since we're on the subject of orbweavers, let me introduce you to the Furrow Orbweaver, Larinioides cornutus. If you live in the country, you're probably well familiar with these spiders, but maybe not by name. I know that where I live, there are hundreds of them that call the sides of my house home. They range in sizes, with some getting quite large, but are quite harmless. They might bite when provoked, as most spiders do, but that's the only bad part. No nasty venom or anything. There are three species of furrow spiders, genus Larinioides, but you can identify this species by the lack of a dark middle band on the metatarsus. The metatarsus is the second to last part of the leg; you can see a diagram of a spider leg to see where I'm talking about at the following link: Spider Leg Diagram. Notice how this individual has a dark band at the end of each leg section, but it doesn't have a second dark band on the metatarsus. This designates it as the species Lariniodes cornutus.

Here's the other side of a Furrow Orbweaver. Notice the bristly leg hairs that many orbweavers have. Orbweavers' diets typically consist of moths, and some of the Furrow Spiders at my house have it made. There are four or five individuals that make their webs around my backyard light. This light attracts moths, the moths go to the light, hit the webs, and bam, buffet for the spiders. 

Another very common spider is the Grass Spider. They are apart of the Agelenidae (Funnel Weavers) family. These are unrelated to the deadly Funnel Web Spider of Australia, mind you. You probably know these guys from their webs, which have a tunnel in which they normally sit. They sit at the end of this tunnel and wait for a bug to land. When one does, they dart out and give the bug a quick bite to kill it. This individual was very photogenic, and barely batted and eye when I was inches away snapping photos. Typically Grass Spiders are very skittish, and any change in lighting or vibration in their web which isn't reminiscent of an insect will make them quickly retreat into their protective tunnel. If you want to see one of these spiders in action, grab a small stick. Very gently, tap a section of their web as if it's an insect that just became stuck. If you're convincing, the spider will run out and bite the stick. Of course, the spider will quickly realize it isn't an insect and will run away, but it's really awesome to watch them hunt. Each spider seems to have its own personality (some are more shy than others, while others will investigate any kind of movement in their web), so you might have to try this with a few individuals to get it to work.

Slight tangent, but I need a good macro lens. My kit lens doesn't cut it for these smaller spiders. Anyway, back to spiders. This is the common Trashline Spider, or the Trashline Orbweaver, scientific name Cyclosa turbinata. There are actually two kinds of Trashlines, and the species turbinata can be told apart from conica by the female's anterior dorsal humps, which you can see here.




Trashline Spiders are interesting because of their camouflage. They collect debris of eaten insects and line it up and down in their web. They look like this "trash" themselves, and bugs don't even know there is a spider there. The females sit in the middle of their web, and the middle of the trash line, patiently waiting for an insect to get stuck in their web. 

Spiders are really awesome once you get past the initial "ew" and fear factor we have. Next time you see one, especially an orbweaver, take a closer look. Really look at their details. You will be amazed.