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Archive for the ‘Insects’ Category

Information is important. With information each of us as individuals, and our society as a whole, can learn about the world. With information, we can all make decisions that make sense. With information, we can all discuss ideas.

Without information none of that is possible. Without information, we are, at best, at the mercy of our current, limited knowledge, and our base instincts. Without information we are, at worst, at the mercy of the limited knowledge and instincts of someone else.

This is why the gag order, and insistence that all reports and data be pre-screened before release to the public, issued by the President to the EPA are so concerning to me, and I think should be so concerning everyone else. This is exactly the kind of action that limits access to, and spread of, information. It will only hamper all of our abilities to operate as rational, critically thinking individuals. It is the kind of action that is put in place to control what we, as citizens, know and when we know it. This is censorship and it has no place in science or a free society.

#thisisnotnormal

pansy-white-blue

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In the last week, I have been seeing some impressively large insects right around our place in West Sacramento. The first was a few days ago, when I was out walking around our little condo complex with my wife and daughter enjoying the evening air and each others company. I looked up at one of our walls and saw a huge insect walking along the wall. It was about 2.5 inches long, bright green, and its body looked very leaf-like. I thought it was a katydid of some kind, but having never actually seen a katydid before, I was not confident. Well, I looked it up, and sure enough, it was a California Angle-wing Katydid (Microcentrum californicum). My first!

Copywrite Natalie McNear

California Angle-wing Katydid (Copywrite Natalie McNear)

It turns out that there are six species of angle-wing katydids in North America. The California Angle-wing is the smallest of the six and is only found in California and Arizona. Adult katydids appear in late summer and fall and are mostly active at night. They are attracted to lights, but not strongly, so you are unlikely to find lots of these insects gathered together. The males attract females by rubbing their front and hind wings together (not a wing on their leg as is often thought). Once the female is close, she will respond with calls of her own and the two individuals will close in on each other through this back and forth conversation. Both sexes perceive sound through small slits in their front legs. I am very much looking forward to spending some time outside and listening for these stradulation calls. I may try to get some recorded. If so, I will attempt to post the recordings here.

The second large insect encounter happened yesterday. Again, my wife, daughter, and I were out walking the grounds when a really big, black wasp flew past me. It was at least an inch long, and was cruising back and forth across the lawn just above grass height. It was completely black. Its body was black and shiny metallic, and its wings were a smoky black as well. After looking this one up, I found that it was a female Great Black Wasp (Sphex pensylvanicus), and no I am not making that name up. This is only the second Sphex wasp I have ever seen!

Great Black Wasp (Copywrite Paul A. Scharf)

Great Black Wasp (Copywrite Paul A. Scharf)

Sphex wasps are diggers. The females dig underground burrows in which they lay their eggs and then go out and hunt for insects for their young to feed on when they hatch. The Great Black Wasp has a very precise way of paralyzing their prey with exactly three stings; one to the neck and two to the thorax. This paralyzes their prey without killing it so that it stays fresh longer for the young wasps. Interestingly, their preferred prey are Orthopteran insects (such as grasshoppers and katydids)! Great Black Wasps are found across most of the continental USA and into parts of northern Mexico. As an interesting side note, the Great Black Wasp was the subject of the first insect article written by a native of the new world (John Bartram of Pennsylvania) to be presented at the Royal Society in 1749.

So cool to see and learn about these impressive animals!

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I have recently been really enjoying watching the Valley Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa varipunctata) around our place in West Sacramento. These bees are the largest species of bee in California, and they are not messing around. They are huge! The females, which are completely black and very dramatic looking, can get up to just over an inch long, and the males, which are yellow with green eyes, are only slightly smaller!

Carpenter Bees are in the genus Xylocopa, the large carpenter bees. There are about 500 species in this genus, worldwide. Five of these species are found in North America and three of them are found in California. Xylocopa comes from the Greek word xylokopos which means ‘wood-cutter,’ a reference to the nesting behavior of these species. The Valley Carpenter Bee is named after the California Central Valley where it is found.

Carpenter Bees have some pretty fascinating behaviors. Generally, they are solitary bees. The females make their nests by boring holes in wood, usually the undersides of branches or beams. They carve their nests by rasping their mandibles against the surface of the wood and vibrating their wings. The holes they bore are not very deep, and so structural damage in not really a concern. However, they are not strictly solitary. Mothers and daughters, or sisters, will sometimes share the same nest. Sometimes they will even divide labor by having one female primarily guard the nest and the other primarily searching for food. Even unrelated females are often quite gregarious, and will often be found nesting in the same general area.

The males generally adopt one of two mating behaviors, and it is easy to tell which species use which strategy by the size of their eyes. Males of some species have very small eyes. These males release large amounts of pheromones that the females use to locate the male. The males of other species have very large eyes. These males search for nest holes of females, and hover outside them waiting for the females to fly by as they are coming or going, and then follow them and try to mate. The male Valley Carpenter Bees that I have been seeing have very large green eyes, so they must use the search and follow strategy.

As with so many other bee species, Valley Carpenter Bees pollinate many flowers, but sometimes they get a bit greedy. If they find a flower that is too deep for them to reach the nectar from the inside of the flower, and so pollinate it in the process, they sometimes use their strong mandibles to slit the side of the flower near the base of the petals and steal the nectar!

If you get to see a Valley Carpenter Bee, they may approach you. Don’t be alarmed. These bees often approach other animals, but both sexes are very docile and the males don’t have stingers at all. So enjoy the visit with these magnificent creatures!

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On Saturday, I co-led the youth bird-a-thon team organized by Point Blue Conservation Science, the Drake’s Beach Sanderlings.  We had a fun and hard day in the field.  Fun because we did manage to see some great birds ending with a total of 145 species.  Hard because the federal government shutdown, that is still in effect in the USA even as I write this, meant that all the national parks were closed.  National parks make up about half of the really good birding sites we usually visit on this bird-a-thon, so we really worked for the 145 total.

While birding, we saw something else that was pretty spectacular.  We got lucky, and happened to be out during a major California Oak Moth (Phryganidia californica) emergence.  It was spectacular!  Thousands of moths fluttering under and around the oaks.  Veritable blizzards of moths scattered across much of eastern Marin County.  At some places, this moth bonanza had attracted birds to the feast.  Yellow-rumped Warblers, in particular, were flocking to the same oak trees to catch and eat the moths.  This was only at some points, however, and it was interesting to note that the peak of the moth emergence was in the afternoon when bird activity was at its lowest.  Coincidence?  I am guessing, no.

California Oak Moths have two generations per year.  The adults are rather plain looking dusky grey or tan with a wingspan of about 3cm.  The adults only live for a short time,and do not eat.  Instead, the males do nothing but find a mate, and the females do nothing but find a mate and lay eggs on the oaks.  The caterpillars are black with a yellow stripe running down the center of the back.  These eat the leaves of several species of oak tree, and can be a significant pest.  In places where the population gets really large, whole oak trees can be defoliated by the caterpillars.  Healthy oaks generally recover, so these moths are not a major threat to the trees, but the effects can still be pretty dramatic.  The pupae are perhaps the most striking in appearance of all the life stages.  They are white, or sometimes yellow, with dramatic and complex patterns of black striping and spotting.  We were fortunate enough to see all three life stages on Saturday!  , and

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On Saturday, I spent about an hour-and-a-half with my three-month-old daughter wandering around a giant shopping center in Roseville, CA.  My wife was spending some time with some friends, and so my daughter and I took the opportunity to have a look around.  As we walked between huge box stores and along expansive parking lots I was impressed, as I often am, at how much animal life was finding a way to live in and amongst all the human impacts that exist in very urban areas.  House Finches were in the bushes all over the place and White-throated Swifts and Lesser Goldfinches were frequently flying and calling over head.

During our rambling, my daughter and I made two particularly exciting discoveries.  The first was finding a bee hive!  The swarm had built their hive in the nooks and crannies of a potion of a wall that have been made to look like pile rocks.  The bees were industriously visiting the wisteria vines, blooming not far away, and also coming in from much greater distances as they foraged for food for the colony.  I was pretty thrilled to find this hive, but was careful not to make too much a big deal about it when people were passing by because I was worried that someone would freak out and that the property managers would find out and spray the colony.  This was weird for me because I usually like to share sightings like this with anyone who is willing to listen, but here I figured that the best thing for the bees would be secrecy.  The second exciting discovery was a Bushtits nest!  The pendulum nest of lichens and spiders web was hanging in a small ornamental tree only about 6 feet above the ground.  The tree was in a little ally way between two humongous stores.  The two adults were very busy searching through the landscaped plant and bringing caterpillars and other insects they found back to the nest to feed their chicks.

Even though this was not a bird walk through some wild place it yielded some wonderful nature experiences, and was a wonderful way to spend some time.  It served as a terrific reminder that there is wildlife to be seen everywhere, and I look forward to continuing to share similar experiences with my daughter.

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My first memory of Rich Stallcup is actually not a bird memory at all, but rather a frog memory.  I was probably about ten years old when my mother, brother and I joined him on a bird walk.  But the very first thing he stopped to show the group were several Bullfrogs.  He got his scope on them and let us watch them breath.  He told us about how they were an invasive species and voracious predators that were eating the tadpoles and larva of other animals and so driving down their populations.  My second memory of Rich is a bird memory.  We went on a bird walk to Limantour Beach that Rich was leading that focused on gull identification.  I remember standing looking at a large flock of gulls and listening to him point out the subtle differences between different species, and the even more subtle differences between different aged birds of the same species.  I remember being amazed at the level of detail that he could notice and even more amazed by the concept that there was so much more detail out there to be noticed then I had ever realized before.

These memories, and so many more, point out what I feel were some of Rich’s greatest qualities.  He was a naturalist in the truest sense of the word.  He was the best birder I have ever known with an encyclopedic knowledge of birds, but he also knew tremendous amounts about mammals, reptiles, butterflies, and dragonflies.  He even kept a wildflower life list.  In an age of ever increasing specialization on smaller and smaller scales of knowledge, Rich went the other way and proved that a person does not have to choose between being a jack of all trades or a master of just one, but instead could master quite a few.  It is a lesson that I have tried to learn and an ideal that I continue to strive for.  And his attention to detail was incredible.  While standing watching a group of Bushtits work their way through a willow stand, he finally decided that he was not missing any other birds in the flock when he started recognizing individual Bushtits in the flock!

Of course, Rich’s professional accolades are many.  One of the prominent discoverers of the amazing natural history of Point Reyes and the fact that the outer point acts as a tremendous vagrant trap attracting unusual birds from across the continent when they are disoriented by a predator attack or a storm.  The outer point now also attracts birders from around the world.  Rich was also one of the founders of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, an organization that is now one of the foremost international conservation NGOs.  He has written books, papers, and articles; and also led countless bird walks and pelagic birding trips, all with the aim of introducing people to nature.

I had the good fortune to be able to bird with Rich for many years.  When he and Ellen Blustein started the PRBO Youth Bird-a-thon Team in 1999, the four founding youth members were myself, my brother,and two of my best friends.  I have continued to participate in that event ever since.  Even after I got old enough that I could not count as a youth anymore, Rich seemed happy to have me stay on as a mentor to the incoming generations of youths.  When he learned that I was expecting my first child he told me that, as long as the kid was more than two days old, I should bring him or her on the Point Reyes Christmas Bird Count!  I was very happy that he was able to meet my wife a couple of times, and saddened that my child will never get the chance.

Rich Stallcup died on the 15th of December, 2012 of Leukemia.  His loved ones were at this side.  He was a naturalist who inspired me and many others with his knowledge, passion and generosity, and he will be greatly missed.

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This past weekend, my wife and I joined the rest of the graduate group that I am in for our annual retreat.  The retreat was a camping trip to Boca Spring campground.  It is a great campground in the eastern Sierra Nevada between Truckee and the Nevada State boarder at about 5900 ft in elevation, and set amongst Ponderosa Pines and the occasional Lodgepole Pine.  Each morning I got up early and went out to do some birding!  On Saturday morning, I walked along forest service roads through the pines and around the edges of wet mountain meadows amidst the sagebrush.  It was simply lovely.  And there was some great birding to be had!  At one point, I heard a Northern Pygmy Owl tooting away not far from me, though I was never able to actually see it.  On a small ridge line, I found a mixed flick that included Mountain Chickadee, Yellow-rumped Warbler, White-breasted Nuthatch, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Pygmy Nuthatch.  From what I can remember, this is only the second or third time I have had a three nuthatch species day!  I was quite thrilled!  This flock was moving through the forest along the ridge.  What really struck me was how unevenly the birds were scattered across the forest.  I had found this fair sized flock of birds all in one place, but before and after, walked through forest that looked the same to me and had the same topography, but had no such flocks.  What made that particular small ridge-line so much better than the one to the east or west of it?  On my way back to camp, I got an additional thrill when I heard, and then saw, Evening Grosbeaks in the area!  Back in the campground, there were White-headed Woodpeckers and a small flock of Western Bluebirds.  Also back in camp, a group of Evening Grosbeaks flew right into the trees above us.  There were about eight birds and all the flight calls that I heard were Type 2, which is the dominant Sierra type.
In the afternoon, we visited the Sagehen Creek Reserve.  This is one of the nature reserves run by the University of California.  We were joined by my advisor who gave us a introductory presentation on the birds and habitat of the high Sierra, and then we all went for a walk to see what we could see.  I added Red Crossbill, Pine Siskin, Hairy Woodpecker, and MacGillivray’s Warbler.  We also found an adult Caddisfly.  Not sure of what species, but I am sure that is this first adult caddisfly I have ever seen!  We also found a Comma which is a species of butterfly.

This was a great trip with great birds and other wildlife, and I even got some scouting done for my own research!  I will definitely be returning to the Boca Spring Campground in the future to find my Evening Grosbeaks.

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