A Stick-y Situation

Two paths diverged in the Nature Conservancy’s Sandyland Sanctuary; as I stood, deciding which to follow, I noticed some pretty, ruffled foliage. I didn’t recognize the plant, but I liked the way the twig lying across it had provided the third side of a natural triangle.

Then, I realized that the twig seemed to be looking at me. It wasn’t a twig at all, but an insect: a Giant Walkingstick (Megaphasma denticrus). If you enlarge the photo, you can see what I imagine to be an appraising look in its eye.

Officially the longest insect species in North America, the creatures can reach six inches or more in length; from toe to outstretched toe, this one measured about eight inches long. It may have been a female, since female walkingsticks typically are larger than the males.

Found in woods, forests, and grasslands of the Southern United States, Giant Walkingsticks are common in Texas, but can be found as far north as Indiana and Iowa. They prefer a moist environment,  and generally are found on trees or shrubs.

A wonderful example of mimicry in nature, walkingsticks closely resemble twigs of the plants where they choose to rest. When motionless, they’re far less obvious to predators; their nearly undetectable presence has led to their continued reproduction and expansion throughout the Southern United States.

Both male and female adults are wingless and slow moving. Adults tend to be greenish to reddish brown, sometimes with pale legs. Immature nymphs, though smaller, resemble adults;  they’re often green, and sometimes resemble juniper twigs.

Noturnal creatures, Giant Walkingsticks feed on leaves throughout the night. When I found this one at a relatively early hour of the morning, it may have just settled in for a post-dinner nap.

Comments always are welcome.

A Short Tale of a Different Long-Tail

White-striped Longtail (Chioides albofasciatus)

Recently, I offered three views of a Long-tailed Skipper with a beautiful blue, furry body. At the time, I mentioned that I’d first seen a Long-tailed Skipper at Bastrop State park in October, and I’d wondered whether they frequented my area. When I posted the photos of my local skippers (Urbanus proteus), I’d assumed the answer was ‘yes.’ As it turns out, the answer was both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’

Looking again at my images from Bastrop, I found that the skipper I’d photographed at Bastrop State Park didn’t have the same patches on the underside of its wings. Instead, a long, silver-white band ran from the leading edge of its wing to the base of its tail. When I shared its image with Wally Jones, a Floridian and birder whose Our Natural Places blog is one of my favorites, he suggested that I’d found a White-Striped Longtail (Chioides albofasciatus). 

After comparing photos with those published on Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA), I had to agree. A common, widely distributed skipper, the White-striped Longtail has a limited range in the United States, but it’s regularly recorded in Texas, and can be quite common in late summer and fall.

The lesson? A long tail alone does not a long-tailed skipper make. As luck would have it, I discovered two long-tailed skipper species this fall: not one.

That ‘other’ Long-tailed Skipper ~ Urbanus proteus

Comments always are welcome.

The Little Blue Slow Change Artist

Juvenile Little Blue Heron ~ Laffite’s Cove Nature Center, Galveston Island

It’s taken time, but eventually I came to understand that not every smaller, white wading bird I encountered at the edge of ponds or on the tidal flats was a Snowy Egret. In the first year of its life, the Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) is white, showing no more than dusky blue or gray shadows on the tips of its feathers.

Greenish-yellow legs and feet, together with a bill that tends toward pale gray rather than black also helps with identification. The Sibley guide mentions that many immature Little Blue Herons show a short pointed plume or two on the back of their heads; I may have captured that feature in the first photo.

As the bird matures, it takes on a mottled, or piebald, appearance as white feathers are replaced.

Maturing Little Blue Heron ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Adult birds may seem uniformly dark at a distance, but in fact their feathers present a pleasing combination of maroon and a dark slaty-blue. Their legs remain green; combined with their yellow eyes and a pale blue bill tipped with black at the base, they’re fairly easy to identify.

In the past, I sometimes confused adult Little Blue Herons with Reddish Egrets, despite their color differences; Reddish Egret feathers have been described as cinnamon and steel.

Apart from those color differences, behavior helps to distinguish the birds. The Reddish Egret is a frenetic forager: chasing fish by running back and forth, opening and shutting its wings, and stirring up sediment with its feet. The Little Blue is a sedate stalker: as elegant on the hunt as in moments of rest, and equally beautiful.

An elegant pair at the Brazoria refuge

 

Comments always are welcome.

Walden West ~ January 1

On January 1, as I returned to the small, wet depression I’d dubbed Walden West, I’d made some assumptions about what I would find on a cool, dim New Year’s Day. I fully expected seed pods and fallen leaves, bare branches, and a mixture of yaupon and palmetto, but in only a few hours I discovered a far richer and more varied world: a world splashed with color and teeming with life.

The first clue that I wouldn’t be alone came as I crossed a boardwalk on my way to the less-traveled path that leads to the pond. An iridescent fly with the amusing name of Secondary Screwworm (Cochliomyia macellaria) was lolling about, ready for a photo session. While the larvae feed on carrion and decomposing tissue, they only enter existing wounds: a practice which gave rise to the ‘secondary’ in their name.

(Click any image for more details; I imagined this one’s eyes held together by a zipper.)

At the edge of a clearing beyond the boardwalk, a few eastern annual Saltmarsh Asters (Symphyotrichum subulatum) still bloomed, while patches of Crow Poison (Nothoscordum bivalve) hosted hoverflies, ants, and at least one metallic sweat bee.

One of our earliest-blooming spring wildflowers, Crow Poison can put on quite a show even in early winter when conditions are right.

Moving more deeply into the woods, I found innumerable trees sporting lichen covered trunks. Judging by color alone, the blue-green example shown here might be a powdery medallion lichen, or a lobed cotton lichen. For that matter, it could be salted shell lichen; I really haven’t a clue.

But this website, filled with lichen photos and more amusing lichen names than I could have imagined — yellow cobblestone, sunken button, golden moonglow, pebbled pixie cup — will be helpful in future attempts to identify fungi of all sorts.

It is, of course, seed season, and an abundance of Clematis pitcheri seed pods dangled, spider-like, from red-berried Yaupon trees (Ilex vomitoria): a reminder to watch in spring for the deep blue, urn-shaped flowers that produced them.

In some places, Seaside Goldenrod continues to produce a few blooms, but other species, like this Tall Goldenrod (Solidago altissima), have bid a final farewell to summer.

Other farewells are more colorful. Gardeners no doubt are familiar with leaf spots like these, which can be caused by bacteria as well as by fungi. Bacterial infections often form a yellow ‘halo’ around infected areas; fungal diseases more typically produce spores within the leaf spot, aiding identification.

Just above this leaf, another bit of color hung swaying in the breeze. An Orchard Orb Weaver (Leucauge venusta) had positioned itself beneath its horizontal web, presumably awaiting the arrival of prey. Its name certainly suits: Leucauge comes from Greek roots that mean ‘with a bright gleam,’ while the specific epithet venusta means ‘charming,’ or ‘attractive.’

Deep in the dim, damp shade, more fungi appeared. At first, I assumed this smooth, round ‘something’ to be a puffball. Then, I realized larger examples nearby had taken on the appearance of rising bread. I’ve yet to find a similar photo online, so identification will have to wait.  

Despite my inability to identify this six-inch wide mushroom, I found its serrated edge interesting, and the symmetry of its gills especially attractive.

As I worked my way back to the edge of the grove, a few more flowers appeared, like this perfectly named Hairypod Cowpea (Vigna luteola). Coaxed into additional bloom by sunlight and warmth, it already was producing seed.

Nearby, I thought I’d found a mutated hoverfly with four wings, until I took a closer look and realized two hoverflies had chosen to dally on a petal of Whitemouth Dayflower (Commelina erecta ).

Looking at the photos, I noticed for the first time the small bulb-like appendages extending from the hoverflies’ bodies. They’re known as halteres: a second pair of wings reduced to flexible, vibrating, club-shaped rods. They function like miniscule gyroscopes, constantly feeding information to the insect about its position and providing for the instant, precise flight adjustment that allows hoverflies to hover or quickly change direction.

As a final treat, I found this Four-spotted Aphid Fly (Dioprosopa clavata) visiting a late-blooming Texas Vervain (Verbena halei). The only Dioprosopa species in North America, this member of the Syrphidae lays its eggs on vegetation near aphid colonies. Newly hatched larvae feed on the aphids, making this hoverfly an important biological control agent in citrus growing areas where Brown Citrus Aphids are common.

It’s sometimes confused with a wasp because of its narrow ‘waist,’ but its two wings and the presence of halteres confirm it as a true fly.

Given what January already has offered, I’m eager to see what February will bring at ‘Walden West.’

“The day is an epitome of the year. The night is the winter, the morning and evening are the spring and fall, and the noon is the summer.”
Walden ~ Henry David Thoreau

 

Comments always are welcome.

One Skipper, Three Views

To be honest, I’m sure this isn’t ‘one skipper.’ ‘One species’ would be a more accurate title, since on December 24, Long-tailed Skippers (Urbanus proteus) were abundant at the nearby Dudney Nature Center.

I’d first seen a Long-tailed Skipper at Bastrop State park in October, and wondered at the time whether they frequented my area. On this day at least, the answer was ‘yes,’ and I was pleased to capture some of the details that had evaded me at Bastrop: particularly, their lovely blue accents and at least a bit of the split in their tails.

In their book Butterflies of Houston, John and Gloria Tveten note that pristine examples of this skipper can be hard to find, since lizards and birds often relieve them of their long tails, but in this case no damage was apparent.

Sometimes called ‘bean rollers,’ Long-tailed Skippers utilize members of the bean family as host plants; newly hatched caterpillars roll themselves into leaves for protection as they develop. Adults feed on a variety of plants, including Lantana, Bougainvillea, and various Bidens species.

In late December, these still-blooming stems of Porterweed provided nectar. A native Porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis) can be found in south Florida, but many local butterfly gardens include Porterweed cultivars because of the flowers’ attractiveness to butterflies and other insects.

 

Comments always are welcome.