Monday, June 27, 2011

Infant Assassins and others

These colourful little beasts are assassin bug nymphs and they are barely 2 mm long. They hatched a couple of days ago and have been sticking together in a little group since. Its not easy to tell the exact species at this age but its quite likely they will turn into Zelus luridus (Here)But before they make it that far, and most of them won't as the assassins will themselves be assassinated, they will pass through this stage.

And heres a damsel we don't see quite so many of. The large colourful Ramburs Forktail.  This is an orange form female.

This is a rather better picture of a Eastern Tailed Blue than one seasons first that I posted in May. Also this male shows the blue of the upper wing which mostly isn't visible when the butterfly is at rest.
Generally though, things are a little slow today and I'm rather waiting for the dozen big fat Swallowtail caterpillars of the lastest group to head out to pupate. I think thats going to be Tuesday. Fingers crossed for tracking down a few more pupae this time.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Missed it!

Yes, I missed it!
 What we have here, observe the crack running up the centre of the upper third, is an empty pupal case. I swear I looked early this
 morning and it was still there. I didnt see any particular signs it was ready to go apart from a browning of the colours. But I went to the pond and came back an hour and a half later and found it like this. Hatched, wings dried and away! 

Well so much for that particular group. But there is another 'generation' following close behind and I expect some of them will be off to pupate tomorrow. There was a lot of moulting going on today and I think it was likely the last one based on the size.
Here is one only just shed. The old skin is right behind and the caterpillar looks very pale. The colours will darken quickly now the new skin is exposed to the light and air.

Something entirely new today though down by the pond. A moth I've never seen before identifed quickly by the folks at BugGuide as a Pearly Wood Nymph Eudryas unio. I wonder if there is a bit of a bird poo camouflage going on here. It had me confused at first when laid flat on a cattail leaf. But on closer examination it really is very attracive.
There was plenty of dragonfly activity though again most wasn't in decent range or was cruising without a pause. I saw several large Darners today but as usual nothing wanted to perch.
There were more and more Needhams Skimmers again and one did make use of my artificially placed perches.

And finally the first Four Spotted Pennant Id managed to get a shot of.  Later in the summer these will be perched on almost every fence post in the yrd and easy to approach, but as yet it was back to the long lens.

Four Spotted Pennant with Blue Dasher at 10 o'clock

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Stairway to....?

The sunset looked pretty spectacular tonight, mainly because there is a brush fire to the south just over the state line in North Carolina. The air is full of smoke to varying degrees according to the wind direction but it does have some pluses.

And as for the 'quiz' here is another shot of this iconic movie location, this time looking down.
And a view of the house that stands right at the top of the stairway.
The film's climatic scenes took place in a room which would have been behind that upper left hand window.  Though, in reality, the house is not quite as close to the stairs as the movie would have you believe. Indeed it isnt close enough for.... 

I'll post the answer this time tomorrow if nobody has solved the mystery.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Insane Weather (Just Like Every Other Day) and a little quiz

Monday, just around 1p.m. it was drizzly, breezy and 65f.

This afternoon its going to be 99f.

Well it was. But it decided to rain instead and barely cracked 90 degrees.

As the young people say, whatever.

Newly emerged Halloween Pennant

My old mucker Outa_SpaceMan has a nicely evocative picture of a stairway here which brought another to mind.
I took this one myself on a little vacation in the spring. Where is it and why is it so famous?
No prizes I'm afraid but you will have a warm feeling of pride and inner superiority for the rest of the day.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Pupa, Potato Salad and other unrelated subjects.

Well sorry but its taken almost a week to get back to update on the Black Swallowtails or anything else for that matter. Just stuff happens and it just doesn't get done.
Gettin' Mighty Crowded.
A Needhams Skimmer and a Blue Dasher share a perch Sunday.

Anyway, as predicted last time, the cats moved out to pupate the next day  
 ( Tuesday 14th) When I got home the food plants were deserted but for a scattering of new eggs. And the task of figuring out where they went began in earnest. And, truth be told, we haven't had our most successful year when it comes to tracking down the wanderers. So far, of the 18 counted the last time we have

That one was found attached to Banished Jr.s playhouse about 30 feet away from the herb pots. And since then we have searched in vain. I'm sure they are fine but its going to make the task of documenting the life cycle a pretty hit and miss affair. There is a very good chance I'll come home one day late this week and find an empty pupal case. What the heck, if so I'll have to fall back on 5 years of old pictures.

The caterpillar finds its prefered spot, attaches itself with a loop of silk that runs around the upper body and halt curls as here. The legs seem to withdraw and slowly but surely we go from here... 

to here...

It seems to take around 24 hours to completely change shape and colour. And based on past observations its going to take about another 2 weeks before emergence. I hope to show you that but really..don't hold your breath. I'm going to miss it 99.9% certain and unless we turn up any more in quick time we are unlikely to get another shot. Best chance then is the batch, already hatched today and eating.

Talking of eating I did say I'd do my potato salad recipe before the cats ate  all the dill. Now many potato salad recipes call for hard boiled eggs.Mine doesn't as hard boiled eggs are utterly vile and I can't bear to be in the same room as one let alone eat one.
So here is my recipe for non HBE potato salad.

2 pounds small waxy salad potatoes. White or red skins doesnt matter I think the red looks more interesting though.
2 cups of mayonnaise
1 cup of sour cream
2 tablespoons of dijon mustard
2 tablespoons of sweet cucumber relish (or a 2 inch dill pickle finely chopped and a tablespoon of the pickle brine)
Salt and pepper to taste
The biggest stonking great handful of fresh dill you can get, checking that a) the Blackswallowtails didn't already eat it and b) that you dont pick any of them by mistake. Wash and then chop this finely.

Boil the potatoes until just tender, they don't want to be falling apart. When cooled cut into bite sized slices, it usually works out as into 2 or 3 pieces depending on just how big...or small your potatoes were.

Combine all the other ingredients stirring well and then add the cold sliced potatoes and fold it all together. Its actually better for leaving a while ideally overnight as this will let all the flavours infuse.
And thats all there is to it. This has the Banished's mother-in-law's seal of approval.

So what else happened in the week? 

Variegated Frittilaries or at least one happened yesterday (Saturday) I've planted passionflowers in both the front and back gardens this year in an effort to encourage these and this is the first one to turn up since the plants went in. This is the caterpillrs food plant and I hope to see some activity there soon. I've read that the pupa is particularly beautiful. The adult is pretty attractive too.
As Ive commented before the yard is full of tiny grasshoppers, thousands of them it seems. I found this one inside the house and escorted it outside. Only then did I notice just how pleasingly coloured it is. Its a Spur Throated grasshopper of some kind but hard to put a concrete ID to so early.
It certainly was too early.  It took the grasshopper experts at BugGuide until mid-July to decide  it was Melanoplus punctulatus the Pine tree Spur throated grasshopper.

Grasshoppers seem to have the most beautiful eyes of any insect group.

There are two types of small but very colourful spider to be found in numbers in the garden every year. This one is the Basillica Orb Web and its finally getting to be big enough to take a decent picture. The colour and shape are wonderful. The other species the Orchard Orb Web is less  distincticivly shaped but if anything the colour is even better. Wait and see.  

I went out into the back yard today and saw something I've not seen before in 7 years here. The yard was full of dozens of dragonflies looping, chasing, hunting I know not what. There had to be something but I'm damned if I could see what they were feeding on. Needless to say nothing stopped for a pic and while it would have made a fun video long shot photos didnt really show what was happening. I just stood in the garden with the beasts zooming around my head happy as a sandboy (whatever one of those is). The clouds looked to be mainly Needhams and Carolina saddlebags but I'm sure there were others too.
The whole thing lasted about a half hour and then they simply dispersed. Also interesting, while all this was happening just off the ground there was a small hawk some way higher that was very vocally chasing and catching the dragonflies that strayed too high and out of the crowd.

I've been cheating a little down at the ponds edge the last couple of days. Ive taken some of last years dried out plant stems and cattails and planted a few 'perches' of my own in clearer space and a little closer than any that had occured naturally. Its worked in the past and I hope it will this year too. However the natural vegetation proved the perch for this Needhams Skimmer on Saturday

A nice pose from a Halloween Pennant

And lastly, a reminder that if you go too high the hawks will get you and if you stray too close to the surface...


Monday, June 13, 2011

These are small...but those are far away.

Our Black Swallowtails have got just about as big as they are going to get. They're over one and a half inches long now and almost as big around as my little finger. These are seriously chunky cats and ready to pupate

This is where the fun starts as we now have to track down their hiding places if we want to continue to keep an eye on development. One or two have already 'disappeared' and I'm going to have to search around the deck and especially the deck rail to find the corners where they have laid up to complete their metamorphosis.

How do they avoid becoming the main course for any passing bird? Camouflaged they aren't. But these are decidedly warning colours. Living on a diet of fennel, parsley and dill has to impart a certain piquancy of flavour. The if that wasn't enough they have active defence. Just getting too close when taking pictures can bring out ... the horns.

These look like they belong to a rather nasty TeleTubby but they appear like inflatable antennae and produce a very strong smell. Hard to describe, musky and acrid and I imagine if you were a bird getting a face-full you would remember next time.

Another female Black Swallowtail was laying yesterday and there is a new scattering of eggs on the fennel and dill. Our big cats have already made very serious inroads into the food plants. I suspect this next crew will pretty much decimate the herbs for this year. Better get all the potato salad made that I can while I still have a supply of fresh dill.

Hmmm thats a thought. I might just share my potato salad recipe if I'm feeling generous. Watch this space.

Down by the pond the species count is going up as the temperature does. Again it proved difficult to get close to any specimens but the long lense is OK for 6 - 8 feet on these reasonable large beasts.

I was especially pleased to finally get a perched shot of a Carolina Saddlebags. I've been trying for years now and hadn't got anything even half decent. These things a fliers, high and fast as a rule and Ive rarely seen one perch and certainly not within range of any of my lenses. So... whoopie!

This seems to be the time of year for red dragonflies as also around Sunday were the first Needhams Skimmers, which will become pretty numerous as the summer rolls on. There will be more and better Needhams pics as they move out more from the pond and start to venture into the garden. 

And  finally the  Halloween Pennant, which is very common around here. They have a distinctive fluttering flight more like a butterfly than a dragonfly. You can find them perched
almost anywhere that you find a tall plant. They range far and wide and you'll find them a good distance from any water. 

Next time, potato salad and pupae (I hope).

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Growing Like Topsy

What a difference a moult makes. Its fair to say that every time the Black Swallowtail cats shed a skin they double in size. Not for nothing do they look just beforehand like over stuffed and shiny sausages . And each shedding reveals a new colour combination.


...and after.

Less black and more orange and white with the latest transformation. The next should give us green too. At the rate they are eating now thats only going to be a couple of days at the most. They are starting to make a noticable impact on the fennel and dill now though they are still only about an inch long.

More and more flowers are opening now. The lavenders are all filling the yard with various shades of blue as well as a wonderful scent when we water. The Bee-balm is coming along nicely too and I found this little beast peeking out of a rolled leaf when I was taking flower pictures.

Its a crab spider I have yet to put an ID to. I'll add that at a later date once I've checked BugGuide and others. Apparently one of the most important identification points is the arrangement of the eyes, so I got this shot for ID purposes.

Oh you handsome devil!

Which reminds me
You Handsome Devil

Monday, June 6, 2011

Hello Swallowtails. Goodbye Herbs

And just before we start thats Herbs...with a H. We arent French now are we?  'Erbs... I ask you.

Anyway our herbs are doing well on the deck, windowboxes and tubs are full of healthy dill, fennel, parsley and basil. And so here comes the first wave of Black Swallowtails. We had a lonely scout out there a couple of weeks ago, but now they have moved in in numbers. The food plant of the Black Swallowtail catapillar just happens to be... dill, fennel, parsley and any other member of the carrot family you care to plant.

May 30th

This female is around for much of the morning. You'll see her fluttering, dotting eggs on the food plants. She will fly off again, circle the garden and return to repeat the operation. Once she finally disappears off over the house we can check the herbs for tiny yellow eggs stuck pretty randomly whereever she could reach. The count is somewhere over 30 although its not always easy to find them all. 

The hatch takes place on the 2nd of June. The hatchlings are tiny and black with a white band around about half way down the length. They are barely a couple of millimetres and really hard to get a picture of even with the macro lens. And this year they were plain impossible with the constant breeze.

Pictures had to wait until the wind dropped and the beasts got a little bigger on June 5th..

Im still unsure of the exact progression of the moults. I'm thinking that the tiny black hatchling turns this interesting orange somewhere before the first moult. After there seems to be more definition the the spines and spots as here on the 6th.

June 8th Update.
OK forget that. What happens is that they are orange right after the moult and then turn black. Thats based on seeing one, now they are a little bigger, that was clearly just emerged, with the old skin still attached. 

They're becoming much easier to see now and I counted 25 this afternoon when I got back from work. 

They havent made much of a dent in the plants yet but they will, oh they will. There are many more to come yet and they will get a whole lot bigger.  I'm hoping to be able to follow and post right the way  through the cycle this year. Watch this place for updates.

Also around now is the Silver Spotted Skipper. This is much larger than all but one of the skippers we see. The one larger species is not a common visitor and fingers crossed I'll be able to post that one before the summer is out.

And  moving amazingly quickly aross the picnic table was this tiny mantis. We are so used to seeing them moving either with  glacial slowness or not at all that its easy to forget how fast they can move when they need to.  This one was barely 5 mm  long.