Readers’ wildlife photos

April 8, 2021 • 8:00 am

Today we have a contribution from physicist and origami master Robert Lang, presenting some photos called “Altadena: Squirrel Noms Edition” (Altadena, California is where he lives). His captions and descriptions are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them:

Most of these photos were taken from my office out the window above my desk.
Naturally we need to start with a kitty. Our first pic is a Bobcat (Lynx rufus), a species I get regular visitation from, though more often at night than daytime. As you can see here, the meadow outside my studio is starting to come back to life, which brings out the ground squirrels and rabbits that keep the bobcats coming.

I live and work in Altadena, on the northern boundary of the freeway-and-housing metropolis of Los Angeles. Because the mountains rise so abruptly, the boundary between civilization and wilderness is pretty sharp, and so we get a lot of wildlife along the edges, both big and small. The Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis) is one of the smaller ones.

One of my favorite visitors is the Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus). They’re distinctive and chatty, and the locals seem to have forgiven me for letting Edison replace the old telephone pole last year that had become on of their granaries over the years.

I rarely see the Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) during the day, but one is a common nighttime visitor who gets snapped by an IR camera I have set. Here’s video.

The Western Gray Squirrels (Sciurus griseus) regularly come down from the trees to root around for seeds and such. This time of year, there’s lots of empty acorn caps, but not many acorns left (last year was a bumper crop).

A different kind of squirrel is the California Ground Squirrel (Otospermophilus beecheyi), which, though superficially similar to the grays can be distinguished by a tinge of brown and speckling in the fur and a not nearly as fluffy tail. (As the name suggests, they live in burrows, not trees.) This morning I saw a behavior I’ve never seen before: one was climbing around on a patch of Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia sp.), which must have hurt! Or else he climbed very carefully.

What could be so attractive to induce one to brave the glochids (the short, incredibly nasty little spines that grow in the areoles)? Turns out he was eating the cochineal insects (Dactylopius coccus)—which produce and live under the white, waxy tufts that you see around the areoles.

He went from pad to pad, cleaning them off. I’d never known that squirrels were cochineal predators, but this explained why they slowly disappeared from the cactus over the summer. I’m sure the cactus appreciated the squirrels’ cleanings.
In this last photo, you can see some of the waxy tufts around the squirrel’s mouth and I think I see one of the cochineal insects stuck on the end of a whisker—they’re tiny dark red dots (and are the source of Red Dye #4, also know as carmine, and commonly used in foods and cosmetics).
In this last photo, he has his eyes closed, and I see him as savoring the flavor of this delicacy that made it worth the trip and the spines. (I imagine Jerry having the same expression after a particularly juicy slab of brisket.)

You can see Robert’s origami page here.

In which PCC(E) tells people how to get rid of fruit flies

April 7, 2021 • 2:00 pm

This is not the first time I’ve been asked “how to get rid of fruit flies,” but this time it’s by a reporter for Chicago Magazine in the article below.

The first thing I had to ask when they queried me, was “what kind of ‘fruit flies’ are you talking about?” For the true fruit flies, the tephritids that endanger California’s fruit industry (that’s why you get inspected at the state border), aren’t a problem to homeowners.

What the reporter was asking me about was what geneticists call “fruit flies” but are better known to entomologists as “vinegar flies”. These are in the sister family Drosophilidae, and are the familiar Drosophila used in the lab. When you see little yellow flies buzzing around your fruit bowl, they are drosophilids, most likely Drosophila melanogaster or D. simulans.

And Drosophila are harmless, except to winemakers, and only because they’re attracted to the smell of alcohol and fly into the wine vats to die a happy death. (Flies love the smell of alcohol, as it denotes their real love, rotting fruit, in which they lay eggs.) Winemakers use pyrethrins, a fairly harmless pesticide derived from chrysanthemums, to control them.

If you see Drosophila buzzing around your fruit bowl or a glass of beer, don’t kill them, just shoo them away. They shouldn’t be breeding in your house unless you have a bunch of rotting fruit that’s sitting around for 12 days or so—and who has that?

(When I lived in Davis, I was called by a bar in Sacramento that really did have a Drosophila problem. A quick investigation showed that there was a huge bin of leftover, rotting lemons and limes from the bartender behind the building, and that was the source of the flies. For solving that problem, I got free drinks!)

But a reporter from Chicago Magazine was interested in how to get rid of them, along with three other “problems”: hiccups, alley rats, and hangovers. Somehow I was picked to be the fruit fly expert, and here’s my answer (click on the screenshots below to see the others, each with a different expert:

Well, this is advice for those with dipteraphobia. If you see fruit flies, just gently shoo them outside!

Readers’ wildlife photos

March 27, 2021 • 8:00 am

Tomorrow may mark a ten-day hiatus in photo postings, for I’ll be on the road. But do get your photos together during this time, as I’ll need them when I return.

Today we have two contributors in a photo duet I’ll call “The Birds and the Bees”. The readers’ captions are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

The first contributor is Alex Salcedo, who sends four photos of snail kite that he explains on his website. The photos were taken several years ago at Lake Tohopekaliga in Kissimmee, Florida.

Female Snail Kite (Rosthramus sociabilis) in mid-flight. Lake Tohopekaliga, Kissimmee, Florida.

Male Snail Kite:

Male Snail Kite:

Female Snail Kite:

And some flower and bee photos from reader Ron Miksha.

Iceland is more than spectacular volcanoes, ground quakes and rupturing continents. It has bees, too. Some say that the first founder bumble bee blew in with the wind. Others think that Iceland’s first bumble bee hitched a ride aboard a Viking ship, hidden among hay, ponies, and sheep on the 1,000-kilometre journey from the north of the British Isles. Bee DNA shows that Bombus jonellus likely arrived on two distinct occasions, so both theories may be right. More recently, between 1959 and 2010, four other bumble bee species were found in Iceland.  All of these species are well-represented throughout northern Europe and likely arrived as stowaways.

I’m badly color-blind and often mistake my wife for a hat, so Dr. Anselm Kratochwil of the University of Osnabrück has kindly identified the species for me. These photographs were taken in Reykjavik by family members and me.

This is my favourite photo. It was taken on a cool rainy summer’s morning in the hilltop gardens at Hallgrímskirkja (Hallgrímur’s Church). The bees had been foraging the night before and camped out overnight. In the morning, they began twitching their muscles to warm up as soon as the rain ended and the sun shone. On this Centaurea cyanus (bachelor’s button) are Bombus hypnorum, left,  with brown thorax hair and black abdomen, and on the right, Bombus lucorum, the White-tailed bumble bee.  These are different species, of course, so their sharing of a bed was quite surprising.

Here’s another Bombus lucorum, foraging on Centaurea cyanus:

Yet another B. lucorum. It’s important, of course, to not frighten the bee.

The next bee, Bombus hypnorum, is the newest accidental arrival in Iceland. Once restricted to continental Europe, in the past 20 years it has colonized Britain and Iceland. Typically, Bombus hypnorum has a dark ginger thorax (mid-section) but this one has an unusual black thorax. She is visiting flowers of Syringa vulgaris (lilac).

By now,  Bombus lucorum’s thorax of light-yellow and black bands of hair and its abdomen of light-yellow and black bands followed by a white tail is familiar. The plant species is Philadelphus coronarius, which we call mock orange.

Thanks again to my sister, Jane, who took the best of these photos and to Anselm Kratochwil for all the identifications.

Readers’ wildlife photos

March 25, 2021 • 8:00 am

Please send in your photos. I know that a lot of you have good photos saved, and what better place than here to have them admired?

Today’s photos come from regular Mark Sturtevant, who graces us with pictures of arthropods. His captions and IDs are indented, and you can enlarge his photos by clicking on them.

These are some of the focus stacked pictures of insects and spiders that I took over a year ago.

The first is a nymph of the beautiful and well camouflaged coral-winged grasshopper (Pardalophora apiculata). These are common among the mosses and lichens that abound in a place I call the Magic Field, but the nymphs don’t appear until very late or very early in a season since they spend the winter as nymphs. One can well appreciate how this grasshopper can’t be seen in this environment unless they move! The stacked picture was made by focus bracketing 3 or 4 hand-held pictures (I don’t recall exactly), with the focus increments done by slightly scootching the camera forward each time. I’ve done this sort of thing many times, and it demonstrates that you don’t really need fancy equipment to get the pictures for focus stacking.

Next is a more ambitious stack of Northern marbled grasshopper (Spharagemon marmoratum), another band-winged species that is also common in the Magic Field. Here the pictures were taken with the help of the Helicon Fb tube, a device that enables a camera to do automatic focus bracketing. I don’t know the number of pictures, but there were “lots”. 

While I was taking the above stack, my macro-buddy who shares my interests took this picture of me. This patch of ground is near a trail so it’s a bit trampled, but you can see abundant lichens and star-shaped puffballs. The terrain I think is referred to as an “oak savannah”.

The next picture is a focus stacked micro-landscape of the ground cover in the Magic Field, taken in the early morning light on a crisp autumn morning. I don’t really know what some of these things are, and perhaps a reader could enlighten us.

Pictures that follow are all staged indoors in my “studio”, which is the dining room table either before or after dinner. Here, the camera would be mounted on a tripod clamped to the table, and many pictures are taken with very small focus increments under the assistance of the Helicon Fb tube.

The first three of these are of a kind of “bark” crab spider.  (Bassaniana sp.).  These are typically not found on leaves. Rather, they prefer to lurk on tree trunks and in detritus.

Finally, here is another staged picture of a flower crab spider this time, probably Misumenoides formosipes. I found her as they are often encountered—by seeing an insect on a flower that looks “wrong”. This one had done well since she had taken a honey bee that had unwisely decided to forage on her patch of goldenrod. I took her home with the intention of doing this stack, but by then the goldenrod flowers were wilted and she was restless. So I gave her a yellow flower from our garden, and she immediately snuggled down into it. During this session she was a total sweetheart since yellow flowers were her happy place. I call this picture “The Queen On Her Throne”, and it stands as one of my personal favorites of all my pictures.

Thanks for looking!

Readers’ wildlife photos

March 23, 2021 • 8:00 am

Please send in your photos. I will probably put this feature on hold while I’m in Texas, but, except when I’m gone, the tank is always emptying.

Today’s photos come from regular Tony Eales, an anthropologist in Queensland who loves natural history. Tony’s captions and IDs are indented, and you can enlarge his photos by clicking on them.

Tropical North Queensland part II (part I is here)

Here are a few of the other wonderful organisms I encountered on my brief trip up north to the jungles.
Australian Prismatic Slug (Atopos cf australis). I’m pretty sure there are several species of this slug around, but they all seem to be labelled A. australis. They are predatory slusg with curved teeth in the radula, and they spit acid onto snail shells to help rasp through to the snail inside.
The tracks at Speewah Conservation Park were empty of other humans, which was great for spotting wildlife. I got to approach this Northern Tree Snake (Dendrelaphis calligaster) quite closely without alarming it too much. It’s a slightly built rear-fanged colubrid and presents no danger to humans.
These beautiful Tropical Rockmasters (Diphlebia euphoeoides), a type of flat-wing damselfly, were common around Cairns and the surrounding area. I wish we had such beauties near me. This photo shows a male and female at Lake Eacham.

This is a lichen-mimicking caterpillarEnispa prolectus. These caterpillars fasten small pieces of lichen to their backs with silk as a form of camouflage.

As the area is a tropical rainforest and it was actually raining while I was there, I was inevitably attacked by many, many leeches. However, I spotted this one (Haemadipsa sp.) on a railing at night actively questing, and I was struck by the bright colours. I have to wonder, are these colours signals to each other, warning, camouflage or just random?

One for Mark Sturtevant: a Pisuarid spider, related to the Dolomedes triton that he featured recently. This one is Hygropoda lineata. These were very common in the north. Rather than living by the water, these spiders make a simple web platform across the surface of broad leaves and sit on top of it, often looking like they are hovering in thin air.
Nephila pilipes, the Giant Golden Orbweaver. These are well named. We have Golden Orbweavers at home, which are big spiders, but these northern ones are mind bending. This one had a body length of about 50mm and was eating a cicada the size of my thumb. The span of the web was about 6 metres from attachment to attachment and the main orb about a metre and a half across.
They are only weakly venomous to humans and very reluctant to bite even when handled, preferring just to climb away.
There were a huge variety of amazing ant species to be found in the forests, but by far the most common were the Green Weaver Ants, Oecophylla smaragdina. I was always checking their trails for signs of the spiders that mimic them. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any. I did however observe their interesting behaviour of holding leaves together like living stitches. Inside the ball of leaves larvae are being hatched. The larvae are then taken by workers and produce silk to tie the leaves together more permanently.
In Speewah Conservation Park there were lots of climbing palms, Calamus caryotoides. The mature stems are festooned with black spines to ward off herbivores. However, these caterpillars, which I’ve yet to ID, use the spines to create a protective home as the crawl around and eat the leaves.
These long-jawed orbweavers, Tetragnatha rubriventris, were very common around Cairns. They have massive hinged chelicerae and the males have large clubbed pedipalps with complicated spiralled spines for placing a sperm packet into the female epigynum. all this weirdness makes them great photo subjects for a really alien look.
Also in Speewah Conservation Park I found this amazing fruiting bodies of the slime mould Tubifera microsperma.
And back at my motel there was a large Peacock Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa (Lestis) sp.) in the flowers of a Monkey Rope vine (Parsonsia sp).


Spot the caterpillar!

March 16, 2021 • 8:45 am

Here’s a tweet containing a photo that itself contains a caterpillar. Can you spot it? I’ll put the enlarged photo below:

I can’t be sure about this—the mimicry is fantastic—but I’ve circled the putative caterpillar in the reveal below. Click on “read more”: Continue reading “Spot the caterpillar!”

Readers’ wildlife photos

March 9, 2021 • 8:00 am

I am running low on photos, and in a week this feature might disappear. Help me out, folks, and send me your good wildlife/travel/street photos.  Thanks.

Today’s photos come from regular Mark Sturtevant, whose IDs and captions are indented. You can enlarge his photos by clicking on them.

Most of these pictures are part of an informal collection that I call “the weird ones”.

The warty “bug” shown in the first picture is a predatory Hemipteran called the big-eyed toad bug (Gelastocoris rotundatus). Well named, and they actually hop! These can be found on river banks, but I never see them until they move.

Shown in the next two pictures is a find that’s always exciting. This is our large mantidfly (Climaciella brunnea), and I have described it here a couple times. Everything about them is interesting. Their resemblance to a praying mantis is a fine example of convergent evolution. Like those insects, mantidflies are predators, although they are more closely related to lacewings and antlions. The form and coloration of this species is an example of Batesian mimicry, in that it gains protection by mimicking a local species of paper wasp. Finally, they are improbable insects because wasp-mimicking mantidfly larvae grow up by first finding a wandering spider, like a wolf spider, attaching to it, and then waiting to sneak into her egg sac. They eat the eggs while the mama spider is guarding them. 

Here is an interesting video that shows an extended encounter between a wasp-mimicking mantidly and a wasp. They definitely do not get along!

One of the strangest-looking insects I know is the large Pelecinid wasp (Pelecinus polyturator), shown in the next picture. They are 3 inches long (!), but are so ghostly and delicate that they are hard to see in flight. In the U.S., almost all of them are female, and they reproduce by parthenogenesis. Pelicinids use their extraordinary abdomen to lay eggs in the ground, and their larvae feed on burrowing June beetle larvae.

Next is a colony of sawfly larvae (sawflies are wasps), although they hardly look like insects. They are in the genus Caliroa. I generally find them on white oak leaves.

I didn’t intend that this post would be mainly about wasps. The extremely leggy insect shown in the next picture is a thread legged assassin bugEmesaya brevipennis. I was with a fellow macrophotographer when this was found (he is excellent in the hobby, but unfortunately too shy to share online). We were both pretty gob-smacked about this strange creature. 

That’s it for the “weird ones”. Let’s randomly close with a mating pair of blue-fronted dancer damselflies (Argia apicalis) that had the bad luck of being ensnared in an orb web. Fortunately, the resident spider was not at home (this species of orb weaver is one that frequently abandons their web to build a new one). But the damselflies were still hopelessly trapped. Of course I carefully disentangled them, and they went their separate ways. Sometimes I like to name special pictures. This one is “Next time, let me drive!”

Readers’ wildlife photos

March 2, 2021 • 8:00 am

Today’s contribution is from faithful regular Mark Sturtevant. His notes are indented, and you can enlarge his photos by clicking on them.

This theme of this post will be about moths. Most of the pictures were taken at a single location, on a single day, after someone left the lights on all night at a park building. It became well covered with moths that stayed on into the morning when I came upon it. It’s fun to just enlarge the pictures and gaze at their scaley, fuzzy details.

First up is a Geometrid moth. This is the adult of the curved lined looper (Lambdina fervidaria). They are quite variable in color, ranging from pale white to a lovely yellow.

Another example of the same family is shown next. Plain and yet very striking. This is the tulip tree beauty (Epimecis hortaria), and they are super-variable in their patterns, as shown in the link. It seems like no two are alike.

Sometimes I need to spend a lot of time trying trying to ID an insect, and moths can be especially challenging. The next picture shows what might be the Ipsilon dart, Agrotis ipsilon, but I cannot be sure of that.

There is no mistaking the next moth. This tiny beauty has a name at least 5 times longer than its body (Epicallima argenticinctella). It is in the ‘concealer moth’ family, which is a group whose larvae live in a bundle of plant debris, tied up in silk.

Dagger moths are a large group of species, so named because of the distinctive tufts on their fuzzy larvae.  The next two pictures show the American dagger moth (Acronicta americana).

I was very happy to find several of the next moth around the light, as I had never seen them before although they are described as being common. This is the painted lichen moth (Hypoprepia fucosa). Their larvae feed on lichens, although I have never seen them on it.

Next is a bird dropping mimic. This is the tufted bird dropping moth (Cerma cerintha).

Finally, this remarkable looking moth is the pink-shaded fern moth (Callopistria mollissima). Their larvae will feed on ferns.

Thanks for looking!

Readers’ wildlife photos

February 24, 2021 • 8:00 am

Please send in your good wildlife photos, as the tank is running lower.

Today’s photos feature dragonflies, a favorite subject of Mark Sturtevant. Mark’s comments are indented, and you can enlarge his photos by clicking on them.

It is once again time to draw from the queue of WEIT-worthy pictures of dragonflies.  First up is a male calico pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa).

The handsome dragonfly in the next picture is a mature male slaty skimmer (Libellula incesta). These are, I think, the most entertaining of our dragonflies, since mature males stay next to water where they obsessively guard a favored perch against other dragonflies. They are constantly hurling themselves at real or imagined interlopers before quickly returning to their perch.

Now, male slaty skimmers are seen regularly. But what about females? I had never given it a thought, for some reason, until one day I came across a mystery dragonfly that was tucked away into some bushes, well away from the water. The next picture shows what turns out to be a female slaty skimmer, which is strikingly different from mature males. I have perhaps seen hundreds of males, but this is my only female, and that is weird.

It is always a special day when I find a new species. So here is an admittedly plain looking dragonfly, but I was very pleased to see it. This is a female belted whiteface (Leucorrhinia proxima).

The above species are all members of the skimmer family. Many skimmers spend extended periods of time on a perch, and that makes them easy to photograph. But the skimmer family is large, and there are species that show little inclination to do that. The next picture is one of those kinds of skimmers. This is the black saddlebags (Tramea lacerata), and species that I commonly see flying high and effortlessly all day on their extra broad wings. So it was a happy find to see one just sitting there! This is one of two species of saddlebags in my area, so one more to go!

The later months of summer are when the very special royal river cruiser dragonflies (Macromia taeniolata) make their entrance into the Magic Field. These large dragonflies are the largest species in the cruiser family. Fast and agile, even by dragonfly standards, they take long patrolling flights where they will quickly disappear into the distance, returning after several minutes. But they will eventually land, and with luck that will be in range of sight. Then, they suddenly become very easy to approach for photographs. So here are two of them. The first is a female, and the second a male. I was especially pleased with that one, as it was my first male r.r.c.

On a later occasion I returned to the MF with a friend who is also very enthusiastic about the hobby (I wish he would post here, but he’s too shy). We worked together to get more pictures of this species, and it was much easier to spot one landing since we could station ourselves along a patrol route.

Finally, here is a beautiful dragonfly from the darner family. This large male flew past me, perched within arm’s reach, and just sat there! Easiest darner picture ever. This is one of the “mosaic” darners, which are a group of species with nearly identical markings. It would have been best to get pictures from the side since the lateral stripes on the thorax can really help to identify mosaic darners, but I was not thinking clearly at the time. Fortunately, I have a good friend online who is quite good with dragonflies, and he thinks it likely (although not certain) to be a green-striped darner (Aeshna verticalis).

Readers’ wildlife photos

February 18, 2021 • 8:00 am

As Blanche said, “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers.” Please send in your wildlife photos, as the tank is dangerously low.  Thanks!

Reader Dave, whose photography website is here, sent some diverse photos. Click to enlarge them; the captions (indented) are his:

Of Leaves and Sky:

American Lady Butterfly (Vanessa virginiensis)?

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) Through Grass:

Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) – Iceland:

Icelandic Horse (Equus ferus caballus):

Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) – Maine: