Thursday, August 27, 2015

Monarch butterfly—from chrysalis to flight...

In a post earlier this summer, I mentioned a monarch butterfly had found our little milkweed stand. I had hoped she would return and lay an egg...and she did! She (and maybe a few of her sisters) laid many eggs. We've counted 11 caterpillars so far in our backyard monarch nursery, and the first went from chrysalis to flight Tuesday afternoon...

You can see the butterfly curled inside the clear case. Just days earlier, the pupa was a light green. Metamorphosis occurs in 9-14 days.
When the caterpillar first forms a chrysalis, it is a light jade green. After about 9 days, it starts to darken until finally it is crystal clear and you can see the butterfly locked inside. When you see the Monarch's orange and black wings clearly through the pupal case, get ready to welcome a butterfly into the world. (Our butterfly emerged about 10 minutes after I took this photo.)

Dangling from the spent chrysalis, the newly born butterfly dangles to let the wings dry and expand.
A newly emerged monarch butterfly dangles from its pupal case (10:41 a.m.). Her wings are wrinkled and wet. She must expand the wings by pushing hemolymph (bug blood) into the wing veins.

A close-up of the pupal case.
Butterflies secrete a liquid to help soften the chrysalis (pupal case) so they can emerge (eclose). You can still see droplets of the liquid inside the chrysalis. 

In this photo you can see the chrysalis on the left side and the butterfly on the right.
As the wings straighten out and harden, the butterfly starts to climb higher and away from the spent chrysalis (12:21 p.m.). 

a straight-on photo of the butterfly. Her black and white polka dots stand out.
Our new monarch butterfly hangs from a milkweed leaf clearly chewed and eaten away by a monarch caterpillar (maybe by her two weeks earlier).

A Monarch butterfly has orange wings with heavy black lines like stained glass...all accented with black and white polka dots!
The wings continue to straighten and harden. It's been a little over two hours since the butterfly emerged (12:50 p.m.). 

 Her wings are considerably harder and straighter...she's gorgeous, but she still hangs tight, not moving. The black and white polka dots on her head, thorax, and wing tips are just as striking as the orange color in her wings. 

The baby monarch's wings are now strong enough to open, and we get to see the deep orange color.
Like a toddler beginning to walk, our newly emerged monarch flaps her wings for the first time (1:03 p.m.). It's been almost 2.5 hours since she broke out of the pupal case.

Black and white polka dots act as disruptive camouflage for the butterfly.
Finally, almost another hour later, at 1:58, she is ready to try her wings. I switched over to video to capture her flight. 
I knew it would be soon...



Monarch Butterfly's First Flight from Kelly Riccetti on Vimeo.

What a crazy ride...
I had read it usually takes monarch butterflies about an hour to go from emergence to flight, but our little girl took almost 3.5 hours. She dawdled, and grew stronger, and dawdled some more. The longer wait gave me time to really think about the process of metamorphosis, and I'm glad for it. The more I thought about what was happening, the more amazed I was. I had been reading about the process of metamorphosis since I was a kid, but I had never witnessed every stage...from egg, to all the larval instars, to the chrysalis, to emergence and flight. It's an outrages process...and immensely cool to witness.

Monarch development at a glance...
Here is a quick timeline to get a feel for how long it takes to go from egg to butterfly. Monarchs undergo complete metamorphosis and have four stages of life—egg, larva (the caterpillar stage), pupa (the chrysalis stage), and adult.

Egg (3-6 days) 
Female Monarchs lay a single egg on a milkweed leaf (the only plant monarch caterpillars can eat). The eggs hatch in 3-6 days.

Caterpillar (9-15 total days in the larval stage; 5 instars, each lasting 2-3 days) 
When the egg hatches, the caterpillar is so small it's hard to see, but it grows very fast. Soon it can no longer fit in its skin, so it sheds its skin and continues to grow. Each time a caterpillar sheds is called an instar. Monarch caterpillars go through 5 instars before they are full grown.

Chrysalis (9-14 days in the pupal stage)
When the caterpillar is full grown, it finds a safe place to pupate, often roaming up to 20-30 feet away. It creates a tiny silk mat on the underside of the leaf and then attaches itself to the mat with its cremaster (the hooklike tip of the pupa). It then sheds its skin for the last time. Under the skin is a light green casing called a chrysalis. At first it is soft, but within an hour it hardens to a protective shell. Now is when the magic begins...one of the transformations going on within the casing is the change of mouthparts from chewing (caterpillars chew milkweed leaves) to drinking (butterflies sip nectar through their straw-like tongue called a proboscis). Additionally, legs change, eyes change, and wings sprout. For 9-14 days the caterpillar totally transforms into a butterfly ready to take to the sky.

Butterfly (Adult: 1-4 hours after emerging can fly, 4-7 days later can mate, dies 2-6 weeks later)
When a butterfly cracks open the chrysalis, it emerges (ecloses) with wet, crumpled, and useless wings. It takes 1-4 hours for the wings to straighten, harden and dry. It is at its most vulnerable now because it is helpless and can't fly. Just 4-7 days after taking flight, butterflies are ready to mate...and start the process all over. Adult butterflies born in the summer don't migrate and live for 2-6 weeks. Those that are born at the end of summer do not mate and lay eggs. They can't survive here in the winter, so they put their energy into migrating (to Mexico) until spring when they return north to mate and lay eggs. "Winter" monarchs live 7-9 months.

For details on the Monarch's lifecycle, click here for a page from the Monarch Butterfly Fund, and here for the National Wildlife Federation's page.

Monarch camouflage—disruptive coloration and warning coloration (with Müllerian mimicry)
There are many types of camouflage in the animal kingdom, and the monarch butterfly exhibits two. You would think the black and white polka dots on a monarch's head, thorax and wing tips would draw attention to it, but it's just the opposite. The black and white dots create a disruptive coloration that acts as camouflage. The disruptive coloration breaks up the outline of the butterfly's head, making it more difficult to see.

In an opposite fashion, the bright orange attention-drawing color in the monarch's wings is a warning coloration meant to convince birds and other predators to shy away. Monarchs are toxic from their larval diet of milkweed leaves, and birds quickly learn to ignore the horrible-tasting butterflies, making the incredibly noticeable color its camouflage. Monarchs also exhibit Müllerian mimicry, where two equally toxic species mimic each other to the benefit of each, enhancing their "scare appeal!" The viceroy butterfly looks similar to a monarch but is also unpalatable. Previously, the viceroy was thought to exhibit Batesian mimicry (where butterflies not as toxic mimic the monarch for protection), but in 1991 it was proven that viceroys were just as unpalatable as monarchs, and they mimic each other for mutual protection.  Click here for the article, "The viceroy butterfly is not a batesian mimic," by David B. Ritland and Lincoln P. Brower in the journal Nature, for details, or click here for an article titled, "Mutual Mimicry: Viceroy and Monarch," by Kara Rogers on the Encyclopedia Britannica Blog.


Monday, August 24, 2015

Spotted Jewelweed sparkles along the Little Miami River...

Bright splatters of orange along the riverbank in August can mean only one thing, Spotted Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is in bloom! Matty and I saw these orange gems last weekend along the Little Miami River at Spring Valley Wildlife Area. The temps were warm, the humidity was high, and the cicadas were singing...all indicative of late summer and the slow march to autumn...

Coevolution of jewelweed and hummingbirds is much studied. The shape of the nectar spur is perfect for its principle pollinator, hummingbirds.
A Spotted Jewelweed flower dangles from a translucent green stem. This beautiful flower is a powerhouse of fuel for the Ruby-throated Hummingbird during fall migration. 

A hummingbird's horn of plenty...
Spotted Jewelweed's conical horn-shaped flower with its tubular nectar spur was made for hummingbirds, literally. The flower coevolved with hummingbirds and is the main nectar source for the tiny bird on its return flight south in late summer and early fall (jewelweed blooms well into October). In return, the hummingbird is the flower's main pollinator. The downward angle of the nectar spur forces the hummingbird to go deeper into the flower to reach the nectar, which means more pollen ends up on the hummingbird's head, ensuring pollination and making the hummingbird a very efficient pollinator.  To learn more about nectar spurs and pollinators, click here for the article, "The relationship between nectar spur curvature in jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) and pollen removal by hummingbird pollinators," by Steven Travers, Ethan Temeles, and Irvin Pan.

When you look at the flower, it has a cone shape that resembles a horn. The nectar spur is located at the base,  which is a perfect location for a hummingbird.
When you look at Spotted Jewelweed in profile, you can see how its horn-of-plenty shape and the small tubular spur at the base of the flower that holds nectar is perfect for a hummingbird.

Disperses seeds like a pro...
Jewelweed's common name, Touch-me-not, comes from its unusual method of seed dispersal. When the seed pods ripen, the slightest touch (even that of a strong breeze) triggers a pop that ejects the seeds up to four feet away. Unlike most wildflowers, Jewelweed is an annual, not a perennial, which means its only way to reproduce is through seed. Efficient seed dispersal is critical to its survival, so it's no surprise it has developed such a cool method of ensuring its seeds get distributed. In addition to jewelweed's showy horn-shaped flower, another type of flower called a cleistogamous flower contributes to seed production. This flower is inconspicuous, small and green, and it never opens. It is self pollinated, and when it ripens, the seeds are not thrown as far. Botanists assume this ensures some seeds stick close to the parent plant where they will thrive in the same habitat. The seeds from the pollinated flowers come from genes from two parents and are more likely to be able to survive in conditions that might be slightly different, so they are tossed far and wide. Additionally, it's scientific name of "Inpatiens" derives from this "impatient" explosion of seeds. Source: "The Book of Swamp and Bog; Trees, Shrubs, and Wildflowers of Eastern Freshwater Wetlands," by John Eastman, pgs 91-95. (p.s. This book is part of a series of three. The other two are "Forest and Thicket" and "Field and Roadside." I love them because they go into detail with lots of interesting tid bits!)  

The deep oranges and reds of Spotted Jewelweed are a preview of the warm colors of autumn. It's a perfect transition flower from summer to fall.

The conical shape of a jewelweed flower is perfect for a hat for a fairy or gnome. When whimsy and imagination take over...
...if you want to wax whimsical, this little flower could totally be a hat for a little flower fairy or gnome. Too cute!

Jewelweed needs a lot of moisture to grow well. The dense colonies often form along waterways and muddy and wet ditches.
Jewelweed reseeds itself and grows in large colonies. It forms a dense canopy and can crowd out noxious weeds (much to the delight of migrating hummingbirds in late August, September, and early October).

Sparkling silver leaves...
I used to think jewelweed was named for its jewel-toned orange and yellow colors, but it's not. Several years ago, I photographed the yellow-colored jewelweed (Impatiens pallida), and after researching it, I learned the moniker referred to the leaves. When water droplets form on the leaves, they shine like tiny, sparkling jewels, and when the leaves are placed under water, the underside shines like silver. Click here to see photos of Yellow Jewelweed (Pale Touch-me-not). The post also covers its use as an antidote for stinging nettle burns, poison ivy rashes, and mosquito bites!


Saturday, August 15, 2015

Indigo Buntings, Giant Ragweed, and hints of fall...

If you're in the mood for Indigo Buntings, head to Armleder Park and look...anywhere! My cousin, Curg, and I walked the Little Miami River and the trails at Armleder on Tuesday, and we saw more Indigo Buntings in one place than I ever have. They were everywhere...singing, flying, singing, hiding, singing, nabbing insects, and singing some more⎯and their plant of choice for perching on was Giant Ragweed...

A beautiful male Indigo Bunting sang cheerily from his perch on a stalk of Giant Ragweed in the big meadow near the Little Miami river at Otto Armleder Memorial Park. 

While most birds have quieted for the season, male Indigo Buntings continue to sing for all they are worth. Their constant singing makes them easy to spot. We found them all along the connector trail, the fields at the beginning of that trail, the trails that go through the meadow, and the forest openings around the Little Miami River. The only place we didn't see or hear them was in the small stretches of deeper woods, which makes sense because Indigo Buntings are birds of woodland edges, scrubby fields, and riparian corridors. They are one of the few neotropical migrants that have benefited from the clearing of forests for farmland, and they continue to expand their range.

Common to some, exotic to others...
The Indigo Bunting is a strange case when it comes to "being appreciated." Because Indigo Buntings are common birds in their favored habitats, I often hear birders dismiss them with, "Oh, it's just another Indigo Bunting," but I've heard new birders or people who live in cities or suburbs not near the bird's habitat, exclaim, "Oh, wow, what is that blue bird? It's so blue!" or "Cool, it's an Indigo Bunting!" Same bird, polar opposite reactions. I love Indigo Buntings whenever I see them. Their song is happy...and when the sun strikes them (the blue color is structural and only shows in the sunlight; it's not a blue pigment), they are exotic looking, and I definitely appreciate them. To me they always carry a slight zing of surprise, so it was fun seeing them again and again and again at Armleder.

Giant Ragweed towers over the fields and can be found all over Armleder Park. 
It is a native annual that can grow up to 15 feet tall. 

About Giant Ragweed (Ambrosia trifida)...
...it's a native plant, but it grows like a noxious weed in crop fields. Quail and other critters might like it, but farmers don't, except for one "Contrary Farmer" who wonders about practical uses for it⎯click here for his article, "The Irony of Giant Ragweed." In the article, Gene Logsdon outlines the horrors of Giant Ragweed in the fields, but he also talks about how much his sheep love it and how quail and pheasants thrive on a diet of it. Native Americans nurtured it 2000 years ago, and its seeds are 47% crude protein, which is much higher than any cultivated grain. To top it off, it's easily digestible. He ends by wondering if "...we are looking at the ultimate irony of over-civilized humankind. We are trying to kill a plant, an ambrosia, that is actually beneficial."

For other information about Giant Ragweed, click here for a fact sheet from the University of Tennessee, and here for the article "Giant Ragweed - Revenge of a Native," by Bob Hartzler from Iowa State University. Allergy sufferers, run. Just like Common Ragweed, Ambrosia trifida is a major contributor to seasonal allergies and late summer early autumn hay fever.

Other beauteous things found along the way...
We saw Red-winged Blackbirds starting to group in large flocks for their big trip south, and even though it was warm, hints of Autumn were apparent. Here and there the deep red of spent Poison Ivy leaves popped among the green, and the purple of Tall Ironweed (Veronia altissima) was splashed across the fields, hurrying along the shift of nature's color palette to the rich hues of fall...

Tall Ironweed (Veronia altissima) is starting to bloom in the meadow at Armleder. Like Giant Ragweed, this plant can get very tall, but it tops out at seven feet. 

A female Red-winged Blackbird eats a grasshopper she nabbed off a Tall Ironweed plant, which is just about to burst open in deep purple flowers.

Wild grapes ripe for the plucking. When the catbirds I heard singing by the river find these juicy treats, they won't last long!

...even though I'm trying to ignore the signs of fall, they keep coming. Ripening wild grapes signal the beginning of autumn and help fuel fall migration in late summer and fall for many migratory songbirds.

Click here for a link to a guide The Nature Conservancy put together titled "Managing Habitats for Migrating Land Birds in the Western Lake Erie Basin--a Guide to Landscaping and Land Management." Even though it was written for residents of the Western Lake Erie Basin, the information transfers to our area as well. Migrating birds need food sources at stopover sites during migration, and the plants we choose for our yards, such as wild grapes and other fall-ripening berries, can help them on their journey south.

...a few of the birds who like to eat wild grapes are Gray Catbirds, Eastern Bluebirds, Great Crested Flycatcher, Northern Mocking birds, American Robins, Brown Thrashers, Cedar Waxwings, Baltimore Orioles, Tufted Titmice, Wood Ducks, woodpeckers...and the list goes on and on. 

...cuteness on the ground. This tiny, tiny baby Fowler's Toad decided to cross the path as we walked by. With fall approaching, he's probably considered more toddler than baby, but he was baby cute...probably about the size of a quarter.

The shift from late summer to fall happens quickly, and soon all the work accomplished through the summer by trees, flowers, and other plants will be put to rest, while birds, forest animals, and humans harvest their bounty (it's probably a good time to hug and thank a tree!).

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Summer is...hummingbirds!

As the squeaky-squeak chatter of hummingbird-speak rattled back and forth across the deck, a light evening breeze ruffled the pages of the book I was reading. It was a freshening breeze, but fleeting, and it reminded me to put the book down and listen to the season before it was gone…

When you can hear hummingbirds squeaking through open windows, you know it's summertime!
A young male Ruby-throated Hummingbird preens in the plum tree beside our deck. Moments before, he had been squeaking and squawking like the warrior he is, having successfully chased two other hummers away from his feeder. 

Hummingbirds fight viciously when another tries to move in on their territory. For being such cute little birds, they are fierce fighters.
King of the North Feeder and all its environs...

The sounds of hummers fighting and squabbling over nectar is synonymous with summer around our house.
Bokeh 
Several people have emailed me asking how I captured the cool background. I had nothing to do with it. Mama Nature and timing took care of it. I photographed the bird around 6:00 p.m. on the north side of the deck. The hummer was sitting in a plum tree with beautiful maroon leaves. Behind the plum was a hornbeam tree lit by the evening sun. Its bright green sunlit leaves peaking through the dark maroon plum leaves created the splashes of color. I used a shallow depth of field to create the blurred background (bokeh), but truly Mamma Nature took care of the rest. Click here and here for a quick explanation of bokeh.  If you look at the two photos following, you can see the background has lost some of its punch. The shift of the sun killed the brightly lit green background leaves...

Juveniles and female hummingbirds look similar, but since this bird has pronounced markings on his throat, 
I think he is a male. Females are usually more white.

...little emerald pinecone feathers glitter in the sun.

With razor-sharp, stops, starts and spins, hummingbirds' aerial combat feats are amazing...and mesmerizing. It's hard to turn away from their supercharged swoops of acceleration and agility. These tiny birds have it going on, and their sounds and displays make me summertime happy, but they won't stick around for long. Adult males are the first leave. They head south about a month earlier than the females and juveniles. It's already August 6, and adult males often start their journey home by mid-August. I don't want to think about summer ending...and these little birds going with it, so I'll ignore the shortening days and enjoy the heat and hummer-squabbles as long as I can.

A slow-motion hummingbird video...
Rick was standing next to our trumpet honeysuckle plant when a hummingbird flew up and started sipping nectar from the long, tubular flowers. He had his cell phone on him, so he captured a little video. He used the slow-motion option, and it actually shows the figure-eight motion of the hummingbird's wings in flight (I added a little music for fun).



Ruby-throated Hummingbird in Slow Motion from Kelly Riccetti on Vimeo.

 
Ruby-throated Hummingbird in Slow Motion -- part 2 from Kelly Riccetti on Vimeo.


Tuesday, August 4, 2015

An American Toad visits the pond...

Another amphibian decided to visit our tiny backyard pond. This time, an American Toad dropped in. He stayed around for a few days and then moved on...

American Toad...warts and all.
An American Toad is curmudgeonly cute...and very "warty bliggens!"

The warts on a toad aren't warts at all. They are tiny glands that secrete a liquid toxin that burns the lining of a predator's mouth. The large bumps behind the toad's eyes are Parotoid Glands, and they can dump a lot of toxin at once. The toxin won't hurt humans, but if it's on your hands, and you rub your eyes, your eyes will burn and water.

American Toads look a lot like Fowler's Toads. For a previous post I did on Fowler's Toads, and to learn how to tell them apart from American Toads, click here.

American Toads are not huge...this fella was about three inches long. They do have a long lifespan, however. I read in "Ohio's Amphibians," by Guy Denny, that American Toads can live to be 30 years old! 

The white stripe running down his back is striking...

Who is warty bliggens? 
"warty bliggens" lives in the world of "archy and mehitabel," by Don Marquis. archy is a cockroach from a newspaper office in 1930s New York. He believes in reincarnation and claims to have been a "vers libre bard" in a previous life. At night, he expresses himself by jumping from key to key on a typewriter and writing about life and the universe. Since he's a cockroach, he can't hold down the shift key, so his poems are all written in lower case and without punctuation. His friends are mehitabel the alley cat and warty bliggens the toad. This is warty's story:

warty bliggens the toad

i met a toad
the other day by the name
of warty bliggens
he was sitting under
a toadstool
feeling contented
he explained that when the cosmos
was created
that toadstool was especially
planned for his personal
shelter from sun and rain
thought out and prepared
for him

do not tell me
said warty bliggens
that there is not a purpose
in the universe
the thought is blasphemy

a little more
conversation revealed
that warty bliggens
considers himself to be
the center of the same universe
the earth exists
to grow toadstools for him
to sit under
the sun to give him light
by day and the moon
and wheeling constellations
to make beautiful
the night for the sake of
warty bliggens

to what act of yours
do you impute
this interest on the part
of the creator
of the universe
i asked him
why is it that you
are so greatly favored

ask rather
said warty bliggens
what the universe
has done to deserve me

if i were a human being i would
not laugh
too complacently
at poor warty bliggens
for similar
absurdities
have only too often
lodged in the crinkles
of the human cerebrum

 archy

by Don Marquis (1878-1937)
from "Archy and Mehitabel"

 For an introduction by E. B. White on "The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel, by Don Marquis," click here.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Summer Green and the Little Miami River at Clifton Gorge...

With a dew point of 77 degrees and the temperature pushing 90, yesterday was decidedly tropical, so it was especially nice to slip into the cool embrace of the steep walls of Clifton Gorge, where summer green filters through the trees and settles on every available surface, and rushing waters create an ancient atmosphere of escape and respite...

The lush green trees, undergrowth and moss glow electric in the deep shadows. It is stunningly beautiful.
The Little Miami River rushes wildly through the green corridor at Clifton Gorge. As you descend the wooden steps at the beginning of the trail, you feel like you're entering another world. 

The profusion of lush foliage and moss is appealing to the senses and almost seems to glow electric in the deep shadows. You want to linger and listen as the river rushes past every plant, moss-covered rock, and watery seep trickling down the cliff.  

...special things grow here, simply put. The riparian corridor at this stretch of the river holds rare boreal relics left over from seeds deposited by the Wisconsinan glacier meltwaters over 10,000 years ago. The steep cliffs of the gorge form a cooler microclimate that allow northern plants such as Eastern Hemlock and White Cedar to survive.

Dark Silurian dolomite limestone walls add drama to an already stunningly beautiful backdrop. 

To the Little Miami River," by William H. Venable, 1836

Romantic the rocky and fern-scented regions,
          Miami, the grots where thy brambles begin,
 By cedars and hemlocks, in evergreen legions,
        With silence and twilight seclusion shut in.

There darkling recesses in miniature mountains
          Recall to my fancy the haunts of the gnome;
     There fabled Undina might rise from  the fountains,
     Or sport in the water-falls glistening foam.
           

Click here for a pdf brochure and map of Clifton Gorge by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Click here for a pdf of "The Ohio Naturalist," Vol IV, February, 1904, for the article "The Topography and Geology of Clifton Gorge," by W. E. Wells.

For information on Ohio's Silurian period, click here for "Geology of Ohio -- The Silurian," by Michael C. Hansen, or here for an article by Ohio History Central.

Friday, July 24, 2015

A Northern Leopard frog drops in...

I wasn't expecting to see a frog on the rocks when I went down to look at our tiny pond, but there he was...and wow, what a green beauty! We had seen no eggs or tadpoles in the pond this spring or early summer, so he must have wandered over from the creek about 1/4 mile away for a look-see...

A Northern Leopard Frog sits on a rock beside our small pond. Just as his name suggests, he's easy to identify because of all of those leopard spots.

The spot in the middle of the frog's nose helps differentiate a Northern Leopard Frog from a Southern Leopard frog. Northern Leopards have a spot. Southerns don't.

Will he stay or will he go now? Leopard frogs can amble far and wide, up to a mile away from water, which is how he gets his nickname, Meadow Frog or Grass Frog. They are not afraid to hang out in the grass. 

If you want to learn more about the Northern Leopard Frog, click here for an article on the "Wildlife Journal, Junior" website.