Photo of the Day

Purple Finch feeding on Green Ash seeds.
It seems a bit early, but Purple Finches are indeed beginning to transit the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed on their way south. This one is feeding on the abundance of seeds produced by a Green Ash that has, at least thus far, survived the Emerald Ash Borer invasion.

Photo of the Day

Mollusks of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Gray Garden Slug
The Gray Garden Slug (Deroceras reticulatum) is an invasive inhabitant of places subjected to human disturbance, especially cultivated farmland and, as the common name suggests, gardens.  They are most active at night, hiding beneath plant litter, trash, and rocks during the daytime.  This inch-long specimen was photographed while out and about on a recent dreary and damp afternoon.  Natural enemies of terrestrial slugs include birds, toads, frogs, snakes, and some beetles in the family Caribidae.  In the field and vegetable patch, keeping leaf litter and other debris away from the base of young plants can reduce damage caused by these hungry mollusks.

Early May Migration

National Weather Service radar showed a sizeable nocturnal flight of migrating birds early this morning.  Let’s go for a short stroll and see what’s around.

Radar returns from State College, Pennsylvania, display several bands of light rain and a massive flight of migrating birds.  (NOAA/National Weather Service image)
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Gray Catbird
After coming in on an overnight flight, Gray Catbirds were numerous at dawn this morning.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Black-and-white Warbler
Masses of Neotropical migrants are just beginning to arrive.  This Black-and-white Warbler was found feeding on insects in a Green Ash tree that, so far, has survived Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis) infestation.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Veery
The Veery is a Neotropical thrush that nests in understory vegetation on forested slopes in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Orchard Oriole
Orchard Orioles are here.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Baltimore Oriole
And Baltimore Orioles are here too.  Vibrant colors like these are what many observers find so wonderful about many of the Neotropical species.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Double-crested Cormorants
Not all migrants move at night.  While you’re out and about, keep an eye on the sky for diurnal fliers like these migrating Double-crested Cormorants, seen this morning a full ten miles east of the river.
Birds of Conewago Falls in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed: Carolina Wren
While many birds are still working their way north to their breeding grounds, resident species like this Carolina Wren are already feeding young.  This one has collected a spider for its nestlings.

Some Autumn Insects

With autumn coming to a close, let’s have a look at some of the fascinating insects (and a spider) that put on a show during some mild afternoons in the late months of 2019.

Bush Katydids (Scudderia species) are found in brushy habitats and along rural roadsides.  Their green summer color fades to brown, maroon, and gold to match the autumn foliage where they hide.  Bush katydids often remain active until a hard freeze finally does them in.
The Eastern Buck Moth (Hemileuca maia) is fuzzy, appearing to wear a warm coat for its autumn expeditions.  Adults emerge in October and may fly as late as December.  Females deposit their eggs on the twigs of Bear Oak (Quercus ilicifolia), Blackjack Oak (Q. marilandica), or Chestnut Oak (Q. montana), trees that, in our region, seem most favorable for the moth’s use when growing on burned barrens and mountain slopes.  The spiny caterpillars are known to feed only on the foliage of these few trees.  In the lower Susquehanna valley, the Eastern Buck Moth is rare because its specialized habitat is in short supply, and it’s all Smokey The Bear’s fault.
The Sachem (Atalopedes campestris) wanders north from the Atlantic Coastal Plain into the Susquehanna valley each summer.  In some years they become the most numerous small orange butterfly of all, particularly around home gardens.  The larvae will feed on Crabgrass (Digitaria species), but have not found success overwintering this far north.  By November, adults begin to look pretty drab.
From 1978 through 1982, the Asian Multicolored Lady Beetle (Harmonia axyridis) was introduced into the eastern states by the United States Department of Agriculture.  It has become a nuisance in many areas where it swarms, sometimes bites, and often overwinters in large smelly masses within homes and other warm buildings.  As you may have guessed, it’s possibly displacing some of the less aggressive native lady beetle species.
On a chilly afternoon, a sun-warmed Bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax) pounced and dispatched this sluggish worker Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) that was trying to gather pollen from a late-season Purple Coneflower bloom.  This spider is bold indeed.
Under bridges, inside bird nest boxes, and sometimes beneath porches, the female Pipe Organ Mud Dauber (Trypoxylon politum), a predatory wasp, builds these elaborate nests composed of long rows (pipes) of nursery cells.  Into each cell one or more paralyzed spiders is deposited along with one of the female’s eggs.  When hatched, each larva will feed upon the paralyzed spider(s) inside its cell, then pupate.  The pupae overwinter, then emerge from their cells as adults during the following spring.  In the autumn, males often stand guard at an entrance to the nest (look at the fifth pipe from the right) to prevent parasitic species, including some flies, from laying eggs on the pupae.  These wasps are not aggressive toward humans.
A Pipe Organ Mud Dauber (right) observes a neighboring nest of Paper Wasps (Polistes exclamans).  This latter species, a native of the southern United States, is currently expanding its range into the lower Susquehanna valley from the Atlantic Coastal Plain. These two wasps are known to regularly coexist.  Both will take advantage of man-made structures for their nest sites.  People using the picnic tables beneath this pavilion roof never noticed the hundreds of docile wasps above.
Those moody Eastern Yellowjackets (Vespula maculifrons) can get very temperamental during warm autumn days.  These wasps may appear to have no enemies, but away from areas impacted by man’s everyday activities, they do.  The Robber Fly (Promachus species) hunts like a flycatcher or other woodland bird, waiting on a perch along the forest’s edge for prey to pass by, then ambushing it, yellowjackets included.
The invasive Spotted Lanternfly, a native of eastern Asia, continues to spread destruction.  It established itself throughout much of the east side of the lower Susquehanna River during the summer and fall of 2019.  Their route of travel across the farmlands of the region intersects with plenty of vineyards to obliterate and few, if any, natural enemies.  Expect them to begin colonizing the west shore en masse during 2020.
In 2020, plan to roll a few Spotted Lanternflies over, enjoy the view, and wait for the crimson tide to pass.  With any luck, they’ll peak in a year or two.

SOURCES

Eaton, Eric R., and Kenn Kaufman.  2007.  Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.  Houghton Mifflin Company.  New York, NY.

Noxious Benefactor

It’s sprayed with herbicides.  It’s mowed and mangled.  It’s ground to shreds with noisy weed-trimmers.  It’s scorned and maligned.  It’s been targeted for elimination by some governments because it’s undesirable and “noxious”.  And it has that four letter word in its name which dooms the fate of any plant that possesses it.   It’s the Common Milkweed, and it’s the center of activity in my garden at this time of year.  Yep, I said milk-WEED.

Now, you need to understand that my garden is small—less than 2,500 square feet.  There is no lawn, and there will be no lawn.  I’ll have nothing to do with the lawn nonsense.  Those of you who know me, know that the lawn, or anything that looks like lawn, and I are through.

Anyway, most of the plants in the garden are native species.  There are trees, numerous shrubs, some water features with aquatic plants, and filling the sunny margins is a mix of native grassland plants including Common Milkweed.  The unusually wet growing season in 2018 has been very kind to these plants.  They are still very green and lush.  And the animals that rely on them are having a banner year.  Have a look…

The flowers of the Common Milkweed were exceptionally fragrant this year.  At their peak in early June, their hyacinth-or lilac-like aroma was so prevalent, it drifted into the house and overwhelmed the stink of the neighbor’s filthy dumpster that he had placed 12 feet away from my walls (100 feet from his).
Common Milkweed attracts a pollinating Greenbottle Fly (Lucilia species).  The dumpster attracts the invasive House Fly (Musca domestica), carrier of dysentery, typhoid, and other wonderful diseases.  Are you following this?  Remember as we proceed, milkweed is noxious.
Busy Eastern Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa virginica) load up with pollen from the flowers of the Common Milkweed.
A Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) munches on a tender fresh Common Milkweed leaf in mid-June.
Following the pollination of the flowers, seed pods will begin to grow.  I trim these off the plants.  The removal of the extra weight allows most of the stems to remain erect through stormy weather.  You’ll still get new plants from underground runners.  As you may have guessed, I’m trying to keep these plants upright and strong to host Monarch butterfly larvae.

I’ve planted a variety of native grassland species to help support the milkweed structurally and to provide a more complete habitat for Monarch butterflies and other native insects.  This year, these plants are exceptionally colorful for late-August due to the abundance of rain.  The warm season grasses shown below are the four primary species found in the American tall-grass prairies and elsewhere.

Big Bluestem, a native warm-season grass in flower.
Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium “Fort Indiantown Gap”) in flower.  This variety grows on the tank range at the military base where the armored vehicles and prescribed burns substitute for the  herd animals and fires of the prairie to prevent succession and allow it to thrive.
Partridge Pea can tolerate sandy soil and is a host plant for vagrant Cloudless Sulphur butterflies.
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) is a popular native grassland wildflower.
Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) in flower.  This and the other native plants shown here are available as seed from Ernst Seed Company in Meadville (PA).  They have an unbelievably large selection of indigenous species.  You can plant a small plot or acres and acres using really good mixes blended for purposes ranging from reclaiming pipeline right-of-ways and strip mines to naturalizing backyard gardens.
A Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) butterfly, a migratory species like the Monarch, on Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).  Yes, it is that Echinacea.

There was Monarch activity in the garden today like I’ve never seen before—and it revolved around milkweed and the companion plants.

A female Monarch laying eggs on a Common Milkweed leaf.
A third instar Monarch caterpillar with Oleander Aphids (Aphis nerii) on a Common Milkweed leaf.  Both of these insect species absorb toxins from the milkweed which makes them distasteful to predators.
Fifth instar (left and center) and fourth instar (right) monarch caterpillars devour a Common Milkweed leaf.  There were over thirty of these caterpillars in just a ten by ten feet area this morning.  I hope if you’re keeping a habitat for Monarchs, you’re enjoying the same fortune right now!
A slow-moving Monarch stopped for a break after making the circuit to deposit eggs on milkweed throughout the garden.
Third instar (top), fourth instar (right), and fifth instar (left) Monarch caterpillars quickly consume the leaf of a Common Milkweed plant.  Caterpillars emerging from eggs deposited today may not have sufficient late-season food to complete the larval segment of their life cycle.  Need more milkweed!
After benefitting from the nourishment of the Common Milkweed plant, a fifth instar Monarch caterpillar begins pupation on Big Bluestem grass.
Two hours later, the chrysalis is complete.
Another chrysalis, this one on flowering Switchgrass just two feet away from the previous one.  An adult Monarch will emerge from this pupa to become part of what we hope will be the most populated southbound exodus for the species in over five years.
There it is, soon ready to fly away.  And all courtesy of the noxious milkweed.
A chrysalis can often be found on man-made objects too.  This one is on the rim of a flower pot.
Ornamental flowers can attract adult Monarch butterflies seeking nectar.  I am now more careful to select seeds and plants that have not been treated with neonicotinoid insecticides.  There’s growing concern over the impact these compounds may be having on pollinating species of animals.  Oh…and I don’t mow, whack, cut, mutilate, or spray herbicides on my milkweed  But you probably figured that out already.

 SOURCES

Eaton, Eric R., and Kenn Kaufman.  2007.  Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.  Houghton Mifflin Company.  New York.

The Dungeon

There’s something frightening going on down there.  In the sand, beneath the plants on the shoreline, there’s a pile of soil next to a hole it’s been digging.  Now, it’s dragging something toward the tunnel it made.  What does it have?  Is that alive?

We know how the system works, the food chain that is.  The small stuff is eaten by the progressively bigger things, and there are fewer of the latter than there are of the former, thus the whole network keeps operating long-term.  Some things chew plants, others devour animals whole or in part, and then there are those, like us, that do both.  In the natural ecosystem, predators keep the numerous little critters from getting out of control and decimating certain other plant or animal populations and wrecking the whole business.  When man brings an invasive and potentially destructive species to a new area, occasionally we’re fortunate enough to have a native species adapt and begin to keep the invader under control by eating it.  It maintains the balance.  It’s easy enough to understand.

Japanese Beetles (Popillia japonica) seen here on Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow.  Without predation, exploding numbers of this invasive non-indigenous insect can defoliate and kill numerous species of plants in a given area.
The Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is a generalist feeder, eating seeds and invertebrates including Japanese Beetles.  This species is the omnipresent year-round occupant of shoreline vegetation along the lower Susquehanna River.

Late summer days are marked by a change in the sounds coming from the forests surrounding the falls.  For birds, breeding season is ending, so the males cease their chorus of songs and insects take over the musical duties.  The buzzing of the male “Annual Cicada” (Tibicen) is the most familiar.  The female cicada lays its eggs in the twigs of trees.  After hatching, the nymphs drop to the ground and burrow to live and feed along tree roots for the next two to five years.  A dry exoskeleton clinging to a tree trunk is evidence that a nymph has emerged from the soil and flown away as an adult.  There are adult Annual Cicadas present every year.

An “Annual Cicada”, probably a Silver-bellied Cicada (Tibicen pruinosa), clings to a stem on a Halberd-leaved Rose Mallow at Conewago Falls.

For the adult cicada, there is danger.  It looks like an enormous bee.  It’s a Cicada Killer (Specius speciosus) wasp, and it will latch onto a cicada and begin stinging while both are in flight.  The stings soon paralyze the screeching panicked cicada.  The Cicada Killer then begins the task of airlifting and/or dragging its victim to the lair it has prepared.  The cicada is placed in one of more than a dozen cells in the tunnel complex where it will serve as food for the wasp’s larvae.  The wasp lays an egg on the cicada, then leaves and pushes the hole closed.  The egg hatches in a several days and the larval grub is on its own to feast upon the hapless cicada.

A Cicada Killer (Sphecius speciosus) along the river shoreline. Despite their intimidating appearance, they do not sting humans and can be quite docile when approached.

Other species in the Solitary Wasp family (Sphecidae) have similar life cycles using specific prey which they incapacitate to serve as sustenance for their larvae.

A Solitary Wasp, probably of the genus Ammophila, drags a paralyzed moth caterpillar to its breeding dungeon in the sandy soil at Conewago Falls.  For the victim, there is no escape from the crypt.

The Solitary Wasps are an important control on the populations of their respective prey.  Additionally, the wasp’s bizarre life cycle ensures a greater survival rate for its own offspring by providing sufficient food for each of its progeny before the egg beginning its life is ever put in place.  It’s complete family planning.

The cicadas reproduce quickly and, as a species, seem to endure the assault by Cicada Killers, birds, and other predators.  The Periodical Cicadas (Magicicada), with adult flights occurring as a massive swarm of an entire population every thirteen or seventeen years, survive as species by providing predators with so ample a supply of food that most of the adults go unmolested to complete reproduction.  Stay tuned, 2021 is due to be the next Periodical Cicada year in the vicinity of Conewago Falls.

SOURCES

Eaton, Eric R., and Kenn Kaufman.  2007.  Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.  Houghton Mifflin Company.  New York.