Four Years and Counting

In the opening scene of the popular and long-running Music Man, critics of con man Professor Harold Hill agree: he doesn’t know the territory. 

Knowing the territory can be as important for a flower seeker as for a salesman. Four years ago, when I found a substantial number of white spiderworts (Tradescantia spp.) blooming in a vacant lot, I was surprised. The following year, I returned to that bit of neighborhood territory to find an equal number of pretty white blooms, and the next year brought even more white flowers.

This year, I expected to find the flowers again, and I wasn’t disappointed. But this time, I wasn’t their only visitor. A variety of small bees, beetles, and hoverflies had gathered around them: perhaps engaged in their own process of getting to know some new territory.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Caterpillars Who Ate Dessert First

One of our prettiest Texas wildflowers is the Skeleton Plant (Lygodesmia texana), so-called because its leafless, oddly-angled stems resemble a collection of bones. It’s attractive to a wide variety of insects; in the flower below, a skipper sips nectar while a beetle — a Spotted Flower Buprestid (Acmaeodera ornata) — prepares to nibble on the ray florets.

In early May, Skeleton flowers blooming on the fringes of Cost, Texas were hosting innumerable caterpillars which might have belonged to the genus Pontia, since Checkered White butterflies (Pontia protodice) also were present. The caterpillars’ behavior seemed a little odd, so I began watching one of the creatures.

Rather than eating the plants’ basal leaves or stems, it made tracks for the flower heads, moving straight up the stem at quite a good clip. Once at the top, it peered into the flower, grabbed one of the stamens, and proceeded to munch. 

Caterpillar on a mission
Mission accomplished!

While I watched, it worked its way from one stamen to the next, seeming to enjoy the taste.

In ten minutes or so, it had consumed every one of the stamens. At that point, I expected it to begin eating the plant’s ray flowers. Instead, it turned, climbed back down the stem, and headed for another Skeleton Flower, where it repeated its climb to the top.

With at least three caterpillars engaging in the same behavior, I couldn’t help tasting one of the stamens. It wasn’t sweet as pie or ice cream, but it certainly wasn’t bitter; perhaps there was a bit of nectary sweetness that appealed to the insects.

Whatever the taste, I couldn’t help wondering if the caterpillars might have adopted the approach of some humans: life is short, so eat dessert first — and pity the poor ant who’s late to the table.

No more stamens ~ the pollen jar’s empty!

 

Comments always are welcome.

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.

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.