Friday, December 5, 2014

2 bird feeders 1500 miles apart

Cheryl and I spent the week over Thanksgiving with our son Gawain and his girlfriend Heather at their home in Tucson. We visited our favorite places, the Desert Museum, Saguaro East, Catalina State Park, Mt. Lemmon, Sweetwater Wetlands, various gardens and so on. At night they wined and dined us with wonderful meals at home and at various of the endless supply of first-class ethnic restaurants. In other words, it was our usual visit.

But at quiet times during the day I sat in the back yard and observed their bird feeders. We had just begun getting our own feeders up and running in Jonesboro, in the NE corner of Arkansas, some 1500 miles (nearly half a continent) away, and I found myself comparing the two. A garden with bird feeders is, after all, a specific kind of habitat with characteristic birds. Our feeders and theirs are, I suppose, in suburban gardens, theirs in the middle of a large but very green city in the southwest, ours on the outer edge of a small city in the mid south. I wasn't comparing them in terms of which was best or had the most species, but in terms of seeing how the fauna changes as you travel east to west. What I noticed was, the birds I saw in Tucson were not very different from ours: Essentially the same birds were present, but each species had shifted over one space.

Some birds were exactly the same. For instance, we had a daily flock of mourning doves, they had a daily flock of mourning doves. Occasionally a small flock of white-crowned sparrows came by both places, but not often, as the vegetation in both our gardens was too tall for their liking.

But, as I say, most of the species had shifted over to the nearest western version. For instance, American goldfinches are a major component of our feeder in Jonesboro. Here in Tucson, it was lesser goldfinches.

Because they are more towards the center of town than we are, they have an invasive introduced species we do not have in our garden, house sparrows.

Since we seldom see them, or look at them when we do see them, I had the novelty here of noticing what handsome little birds the males are. In Britain, where ours come from, they are a part of the natural fauna, and for unknown reasons they (along with starlings) are slowly disappearing. We may one day be in a position to reintroduce them to Britain from our unwanted stocks.

Filling this bird's position back in Jonesboro, we have an invasive introduced species of our own, the house finch. When we moved to Jonesboro in the mid 70's, the very first house finches were appearing in Arkansas. I think we may actually have driven into town once to get a glimpse of one. Now they are numerous. The story we all hear is that a pet shop in New York had brought some out from the west coast to sell as cage birds, and a few had escaped, and from that tiny beginning began spreading west. They have since joined back up with the original west coast birds somewhere in the middle. The house finches in Tucson are not introduced but were there all along, no doubt nesting around the dwellings of the paleo-indians adding color and cheerful songs to their lives. They are the commonest birds at the Tucson feeder, and I fancied these "real" birds looked different from ours in Jonesboro, though I don't know in precisely what way. Something subtle in the color perhaps.

Our brightly colored and patterned eastern towhee was replaced in this garden by Abert's towhee, a bird that ran along the ground like a mouse, staying in the shadows. It's an elegant bird, but like so many birds that are western versions of their eastern counterparts, the colors and patterns are subdued to be more in keeping with desert colors.

A bigger more dramatic bird also racing about mostly in the shadows, the curve-billed thrasher is the desert-colored version of our richly colored and patterned brown thrasher. It would bound up on the feeding table with its muscular body, glare around with its fiery eye, then grasp a peanut and dive back into the tangle of palms and cactus at the back of the yard.

Our noisy red-bellied woodpecker, which comes to suet cakes and (awkwardly) to our hummingbird feeder, is replaced here by the closely related and even more noisy gila woodpecker. The gila sweeps in for a peanut and is gone too quickly to be able to get a decent picture of.

Instead of the ruby-throated hummingbird that comes to our feeder, in Tucson it is the Anna's.

At our home in Jonesboro in winter the tiny tame ruby-crowned kinglet is constantly flitting around the garden searching along every branch or under every leaf for tiny bits of protein. In Tucson filling the same niche was the tiny tame verdin.

And just as at our feeder, in Tucson a heavy presence hangs over the scene. Every time a bird picks up a seed it stops to look all around before looking down for the next seed. At the least movement of a limb, at the sudden shadow of a large bird, all the birds are up with an audible rush of wings. Scarcely a full minute goes by without that rushing sound. The cooper's hawk is a common nesting bird in Tucson (as it is becoming in Jonesboro), and their visits came at least once a day. The birds dive into the thicket, the hawk dives in right behind them, and the success rate is high.

But minutes later the surviving birds are back feeding again. I sometimes think, how can the birds lead a normal life knowing that if they go even ten seconds without looking around they could be violently killed? Why aren't they entirely stressed out? How can they eat, court, feed young birds? But sometimes someone can come up with an analogy which makes these impossible to conceive of questions suddenly comprehensible. My favorite example is the person who said the movement of tectonic plates is making the Atlantic Ocean spread "at the speed that fingernails grow." My wife came up with one of these analogies. When I said, What must it be like to live when you can't ever relax your attention for more than a few seconds? she said, "It would be like driving."

I thought about that, making the long drive back to Jonesboro, snacking, drinking coffee, talking, listening to music, marveling at the scenery, at the same time that multi-thousand pound semis hurtled by us inches away at eighty miles an hour.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

What do entomologists do?

To tell the truth, we spend quite a lot of time examining male genitalia. It's often the only sure way to identify invertebrates. When two closely related invertebrates evolve forms far enough apart that they can no longer mate with one another (often because the parts no longer fit together), that is one of the definitions that they are separate species. We've been working for the last few years on a photographic field guide to the grasshoppers of Arkansas, trying to make the guide like a bird field guide, that is, making the species identifiable by sight, by field marks that are visible through binoculars, or from close-up photographs blown up on a screen. In other words, so they won't need to be caught and examined under  a dissecting microscope.

You would think that would get me away from all this close attention to genitalia, but actually all it has done is make it more complicated. Now I need to find ways to make the free and untrammeled creature expose its genitalia to me, and I have to get myself into whatever weird angle I need to photograph it from so I can examine it at my leisure on my computer screen.

I've gotten quite good at photographing grasshoppers so that they reveal all (and grasshoppers are surprisingly modest). But this summer I convinced myself I was being a coward by only recording grasshoppers, and not all the other Orthopters, the crickets and katydids. Katydids always seemed to me especially daunting, endless identical green things with long skinny legs and antennae. Capinera's "Field Guide to Grasshoppers, Katydids, and Crickets of the U.S." actually has pages of sonograms for the katydids and crickets, suggesting that since they are out at night and are famous for their camouflage, the only practical way to know which species are around is to listen for their songs. The problem is, at my age most of the high-end bird songs are gone, and I expect I am missing a lot of the katydid and cricket songs as well.

Well, this summer I started on those other orthoptera and I have made some progress, but at the moment I am back to genitalia. There are a few genera of katydids, for example (like Orchelimum or Scudderia) where all the species in the genus look more or less identical to each other. In those cases, the species write-ups in Capinera are presenting me (just as with the grasshoppers) pages of diagrams of genitals.

To show you how it works, here is a male katydid in the genus Orchelimum.

If you note the thing like a carrot sticking out of its rear end, that is one of its cerci (there's another one on the  other side) which it uses to hold the female in place while they are mating. The different species have differently shaped cerci. Here's the chart in Capinera.

What I have to do now is sort of stand on my head so I can get a better angle on the cerci.

And then get in close for a detail shot. (A slight problem is, I am seeing them from below, and the chart shows them from above.)

I have checked the range maps, and luckily only four of the species on the chart (marked by a black dot) are known to occur in Arkansas. Now if you look at the chart, of those marked ones only the second one on the top row, and the first one on the bottom row have the slender unlumpy shape of the katydid in my photograph. Of those two, only the top one has the spur shorter than the remainder of the cercal shaft, the bottom one showing the spur to be longer. Therefore my picture is of O. agile, the Agile Meadow Katydid.

I'm showing you all this to show you how it works. Actually, on this species I am using as an example, there is a simpler way of identifying it: It has a white head and orange-yellow tibiae (the second long joint of the leg). Of the four possible species in my area, only O. agile and one other species, The Black-legged Meadow Katydid (O. nigripes), has a white head, and you can probably guess how the Black-legged differs from the Agile.

This is the only species in our area with black tibiae, so in this case even the female (as here, with her ovipositor) is readily identifiable.

That's two of the four that are found here. Here is a third species.

This has a green head, which means it cannot be one of the first two we looked at. It looks to me like the spur is longer than the rest of the shaft after the spur, which makes it O. silvaticum, the Long-spurred Meadow Katydid.

There is a fourth species, The Common Meadow Katydid, O. vulgare. I think in my heart this is it:

But I can't prove it. I was so intent on photographing it in the act of stridulating, with the "arched wings making a megaphone," as David Ferguson expressed it, that I forgot to get the cerci into the picture.

There are three katydids in the genus Scudderia that occur in Arkansas, all pretty much identical in appearance. Here is Scudderia texensis, the Texas Bush Katydid.

I have shown you a female because this is one of the rare cases where the female is much easier than the male to identify to species. If you look at the ovipositor, the upper margin of the base, and the upper margin of the terminal portion are at right angles to each other. This is true of S. texensis only, females of other species in this genus having a wider angle. But there is no simple way to identify males.

Here is a male Scudderia, found in the same area as the above, with similar coloring, and is very likely also S. texensis, but I can't prove it, since I didn't get a look at the genitalia.

 To identify males, once more I have to examine a chart.

The picture at the top of the chart shows how the rear end of a male Scudderia looks from the side. The six pictures below it show how the sort of tongue-like structure on the top would appear if you were looking straight down on it. The shape at the tip is vital for identification. The three Scudderia species that occur in Arkansas are: On the top row left, S. texensis, Texas Bush Katydid; top row right, S. furcatus, Fork-tailed Bush Katydid; and bottom row left, S. curvicauda, Curve-tailed Bush Katydid.

Now if you look at the live unrestrained katydid in the picture above the chart you will see the problem: All that equipment is permanently concealed beneath its wings.

Here's how we're trying to get around this problem: We were out a couple of days ago and saw a male Scudderia.

I quietly positioned myself behind and a little below him while Cheryl took a long stick and used it to gently lift his wings, and we got these rather rude pictures.

The green thing curving up is what they call the "ventral abdominal process" and the reddish thing it  meets is the "dorsal abdominal process." We see that the dorsal process is bifurcated into two deeply cleft forks with rather meaty side pieces, and the chart tells us this makes it the Fork-tailed Bush Katydid (top row right).

Now I just have to hope the police never search my computer for pornography.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Take another look at that bumble bee

[This essay appeared in abbreviated form in a recent issue of the Arkansas State Audubon Society Newsletter.]

We easily recognize that this is a bumble bee. It's a large black and yellow insect with a furry yellow thorax with a bald spot in the middle of it. We might feel kindly towards this big bumbling creature visiting our flowers, but if I said "Pick it up, please," you would quickly hide your hand behind your back.

Do you realize instinct has helped to program your response, that you have responded in much the same way a bird or lizard or even many insects might have? What we are responding to is the color and the pattern on its back. Black and yellow are warning colors, they signal to us and other creatures that this thing either tastes bad or bites or stings. Black and yellow bands on a yellow jacket send the same message but not the same--What do I want to say?--trustworthiness. We're wary of yellow jackets; we know the bumble bee is completely inoffensive unless we try to pick it up, and the difference is that round yellow thorax with the black spot in the middle.

Now, lots of harmless insects that are very good eating would like to have the bumble bee's dangerous reputation, as it might discourage predators from attacking. In fact a surprisingly large number of insects imitate the bumble bee as closely as they can manage, for just that purpose. I'll show you here just a few.

Most of you recognize this first bumble bee mimic, the Snowberry Clearwing. It's a very common day-flying hawk moth that hovers before your flowers drinking nectar through its long tongue, its wings an invisible blur, looking like a small hummingbird. When it emerges from the pupa into adulthood it has brown scales covering its wings, and the thorax is covered with yellow fur. But almost instantly it begins shedding scales from its wings until they appear mostly transparent (as on a bumble bee), and the bald spot begins (as here on this fresh individual) to appear on its thorax. The strategy must do it some good; this is one of the commonest creatures in our garden.

You probably don't recognize this creature as a bumble bee mimic. This is an American Carrion Beetle, a common visitor to road-kill corpses (don't confuse its name with the endangered American Burying Beetle). The one in the picture is on the back of a dead opossum. Here on the corpse it doesn't seem much like a bumble bee. It doesn't have a furry thorax, which would just get bloody and messy. But, it has a pretending yellow furry thorax, with a pretending bald spot in the center. I didn't think it was a very good disguise, until one day I saw one flying swiftly to a road kill, following the scent trail. It was buzzing loudly like a bee and sweeping around at about eye height (also like a bee) and looked so much like a bumble bee I had to look and look to be sure it was a beetle, and I have a lot of experience with these mimics.

I've shown you so far a moth and a beetle as bumble bee mimics. This one is a fly, Laphria affinis. In the genus Laphria there are dozens of species, the great majority being bumble bee mimics. They carry the mimicry to a high art, and they are such a successful group that I am sure they get the full advantage of looking like something with a painful sting, which they do not have.

But here the discussion gets complicated. So far I have shown harmless creatures pretending to be dangerous. But this Laphria really is dangerous. It's a robber fly, a powerful killer of other insects, using, not a stinger, but a beak which injects neurotoxins and digestive enzymes that kill quickly and turn the insides of its prey into soup, which it sucks up its hollow beak. If you try to pick this one up he'll stab you and you won't forget it. They wait in an open place, and if a suitable prey insect flies over, they fly up like a falcon and snatch it out of the air, too fast sometimes for you to see.

So is it possible that this one relies on the other part of the bumble bee's reputation, the reputation for inoffensiveness, in order to cosy up to the creatures it is hunting? There is defensive mimicry, and offensive mimicry. Or at least there is a hotly contested theory that some mimicry is predatory in intent.

I was always skeptical of that second theory. For one thing, it is axiomatic that robber flies very seldom visit flowers, and if you see one landed on a flower it is probably a coincidence. So how is it going to cosy up to insects that hang out in the same places that bumble bees do, namely flowers?

Well it was this very species, Laphria affinis, that I one day saw bumbling and buzzing clumsily around some big sprays of flowers, often stopping to hang from them as if he were interested in their pollen.

I happened to have an insect ecology class with me and I was explaining this theory to them, and how skeptical I was of it. A number of orange soldier beetles were visiting the flowers paying no more attention to the big fly than they were to the real bumble bees also there, and before we knew it, he had one.

Here maybe I had better show a pair of mating Laphria thoracica (a different species of robber fly), to prove that at least they can tell each other from bumble bees.

I've led you carefully from step to step to help you see what I see in a remarkable horse fly I found yesterday drinking sap from a tree wound. I saw from a distance what looked to my practiced eye like the old familiar pattern. Here was a rather large stout all black insect with the yellow thorax with the bald spot in the middle. This group of flies in the genus Tabanus have a stereotyped pattern of close-together black stripes on the thorax, perhaps very difficult to alter. But horse flies I'm sure you have noticed have marvelous eyes of all colors and patterns of green or red or green-banded and so on. The males have eyes all the way across the top of their heads with thousands of lenses, and the patterns come from the light refraction from differently shaped deep-down lenses. This is where the different species get a chance to differ from each other, and it may only require a few genes to make the alteration. I think this fly has not only created a pretending bumble bee thorax, it has created a pretending thorax itself, out of its eyes. I have never seen the like before, and I can't seem to find anything like this in my books or in BugGuide (though, interestingly, I found a west-coast Tabanus that had evolved an actual furry-yellow thorax with a bald spot), and I wonder if anyone has seen this fly before and seen the bumble bee pattern, or if it is only my fascination with insect mimicry that has made me imagine it. I looked at it from different angles to see if the pattern held or was just an odd quirk from my angle of vision, and the pattern held.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The amazing invertebrates of Ferncliff Camp

Every year the Arkansas Audubon Society rents classrooms at Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center for a weekend to teach nature courses (tree identification, native plant gardening, mammals, and so on). For the past several years Cheryl and I have taught classes in butterflies and in insect ecology. This past weekend we did butterflies.

The camp consists of 1200 acres nicely situated in mountains 10 miles west of Little Rock. There are meadows, woods, two big lakes, a stream running through it. It would be perfect, except someone there has this thing about tidiness (always antithetical to nature). Everything is mowed. The fields are mowed right down to the edge of the lakes. In dry years they can get their mowers into the ditches alongside the road, and the weedy flowers there are mowed. Butterflies look for flowers, but flowers are nonexistent.  There is an underpass to come off the highway and get down to the camp, and in the concrete structures above it there are places that so far their mowers have not reached, and that is often our single hope for a few wild flowers and a few butterflies. Because in those little unmowed patches, the wildflowers are quite good and teeming with butterflies and other insects.

So, as always, our hearts sank a bit as we drove in. What are we possibly going to be able to find for our classes? But again this time, as always, the insects turned out to be fantastic. We see bigger, more exotic creatures here than anywhere we know in the state. Of course part of reason is an intensive weekend of searching (somewhat desperate on our parts), but aided by the many sharp eyes of our eager classes.

We had come a day early to look the place over, and as we walked towards our classroom we came to a tree that had several large wounds in it bleeding sap, and there were butterflies attracted to the sap. That would be terrific to have this insect draw right outside the door. And the first thing we saw as we approached it was unbelievable, a beetle at least two inches long and in bright red and green and gold colors.  We looked at it almost stunned, and didn't get our cameras out until it started scampering up the trunk so that it was too far above us for a really good shot. But we did get this, anyway.

Our books told us its name was Plinthocoelium suaveolens. We had never seen it or even heard of it before. They are attracted to sap, so this was the place to find them, but we were lucky to see it anyway. When we told Brian "Bugs" Baldwin about it, he said it was very late in the year for it.

We had only been on site for half an hour, and already had a big new exotic insect. Now, what we had noticed in past years is that the place was outstanding for caterpillars. Partly it was because we came late in the year when caterpillars are at their peak, but partly it was the tremendous variety of trees, which is part of the reason the tree identification class here is so popular. (The main reason is because Eric Sundell is the teacher.)

Anyway we're very fond of caterpillars (we always have jars full of ones we are raising) and Cheryl with her sharp eyes is always watching for them. This day she was looking down at some bushes near that sap-leaking tree and began seeing caterpillars, probably half a dozen. They were quite pretty.

They were tussock caterpillars of some kind (there are dozens of kinds) and I was trying to remember which. "The orange brushes in the front make it Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillars? No, that's not quite right. Some tree name." Then I remembered: Sycamore Tussocks. We looked up and there was a sycamore tree right by us. These had all fallen out of the tree and would never get back. They were doomed to starve. We looked for a place where some sycamore leaves came within our reach, and very carefully held the caterpillars up to the leaves till they caught hold and climbed up for another chance at life.

But there must have been thousands and thousands of them up in the sycamore trees we could now see were all about us, because only a small fraction falls off, and when we looked around, they were swarming everywhere on the ground. Here they are sheltering under the window frames of the buildings. Multiply this by all the window frames of all the buildings around.

We pretty quickly gave up on trying to save all the thousands of fallen caterpillars. To tell the truth we were rather pleased that if all else failed, at least we would have this phenomenon to show our students. In fact, when our class was with us the next day and we were examining these caterpillars, we found that there was a second caterpillar in amongst them, another kind of Tussock Moth caterpillar, the White-marked Tussock.

That gave me a chance to talk to our class about mimicry in insects, one of my favorite topics. In my Caterpillars of Eastern North America (Wagner, 2005) book some twenty species of caterpillar are listed under the name Tussock (named for the tight bunches of bristles on their backs). These caterpillars come from different families, and only a few of them are "true" tussocks, and the rest are mimics. The White-marked is a true tussock. If you look at the picture above you will see there are two little red bumps on its back near the tail end. These are the "defensive glands," which contain a severe skin irritant.  (Indeed, in one species, the Browntail Moth, the irritant has caused allergic reactions that have even led to death.)  I had read that while grooming, they rubbed their hairs over these glands, to coat them with the irritant. While the class was studying one, we jostled the leaves it was on so much it became annoyed enough to begin crawling off, and that's when it stopped and went through motions that looked like it might have been rubbing its brushes over the little red cups. Birds know about the cups, and leave these caterpillars alone.

The moral of the story is that all these other Tussock Moth caterpillars were mimicking the true tussocks so that birds would leave them alone too. Judging by the ineptitude of the Sycamore Tussocks wandering all over the landscape, they needed all the help they could get.

In addition to neat caterpillars, Ferncliff also has wonderful spiders, the biggest of their kinds. One of the pleasures of teaching a class for these alert, intelligent, nature-loving people is that when we discovered an enormous spider on the wall of our classroom instead of shrieks and a stampede for the door, they were thrilled, and cameras were flashing at it from every direction, including mine.

This is an exceptionally large Tiger Wolf spider (tiger for the orange stripes on the legs). They live in burrows during the day and come out hunting at night, but as winter approaches, a number of spiders begin to move into more sheltered places, from hollow logs to warm classrooms.

And when we led them up a trail that followed a wooded path along a streamside, we found an even bigger spider. This was Dolomedes vittatus, one of the fishing spiders known for catching tadpoles and small fish and diving under water to escape their enemies. This large female spider had woven a little tent out of leaves and had cached its young spiderlings inside, and was now standing guard over them and would faithfully remain until it starved to death or froze this winter. Those babies certainly looked well guarded (just the spider's body was over an inch long). They should have a good start when they all go off in their separate directions in the spring.

And another spider of great interest to me, a male Geolycosa. I said in an earlier post that with spiders in the genus Geolycosa, the Burrowing Wolf Spiders, the females spend their whole life in or immediately around their burrows, but that the males, when they become sexually mature, leave their burrows and head out looking for females. I had never seen one of these males on the move, but here in rather deep woods where I hadn't expected it, we suddenly saw one.  It came by and was gone in a moment, but we got good pictures.  Here is Cheryl's very fine portrait.

There was at least one noteworthy vertebrate for the weekend. Some of the group were farther up the path with Cheryl when they saw a half-grown copperhead on the path, which quickly crawled off the path into the leaf litter which its pattern was designed to blend into.

The snake is centered in this photo, and the flash brings it up, so this probably won't work for you. But when I came up, the people who had stayed behind to point it out to me kept saying "It's right there," pointing their fingers as close to it as they dared, and saying it was under this stick and over that leaf, but I absolutely could not see it. And then, click! suddenly I could see it, and it was as if a light turned on, and it was perfectly clear and obvious, and each person who came up after me went through the same embarrassing experience of not being able to see it for the longest time, then suddenly there it was.

The camouflage pattern, matching the tangle of dead leaves, was perfect, but still, there was some other, psychological, thing blocking us from disentangling the snake out of it, which is why, once we broke out of it, it was then easy to see.

I guess I should at least have one butterfly picture, since that is what we were meant to be directing our class towards. There was fog fruit growing along the lake edge (a low growing plant that managed to keep underneath the mowing blades). That's the caterpillar food for the Phaon Crescent, a handsome little butterfly, and there was a small population of adults hanging around the plant, which our students could get acquainted with and practice using their close-focusing binoculars on. Otherwise, there weren't many species of butterfly about, and those that were about were the very commonest species, Cloudless Sulphurs, Eastern Tailed Blues, Pearl Crescents, Red-spotted Purples and other species like that. If Cheryl and I were there alone and looking for butterflies, it would have been disappointing, and we worried that we wouldn't have enough to show our students. But we were wrong. For a class of mainly beginners it was just right, a small amount of information for them to practice learning field marks on, without being totally overwhelmed. And because we kept veering off to look at spiders or snakes or phantom crane flies I think we might have helped them discover the intense pleasure not just of finding butterflies, but of seeing every living thing.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

If you build it (a no-pesticide, getting-out-of-control garden) they will come

We've lived in this house for nearly forty years, and we can still step outside the door on virtually any reasonable day and find some species of arthropod we have never seen before, or some interesting bit of behavior we have never witnessed before. We are on an acre lot (abbreviated a bit because the county road has an easement across the front, and beyond that the railroad tracks have another easement that cuts off some more of our front). Beyond those two cuts is an upland oak-hickory woods of, I don't know, five or ten acres, which was clear-cut in 1935, but since then has not been touched. To the north and east behind our house are row-crops, rotating between rice, corn, and soybeans, to the south three or four houses, then more row crops.

The yard was bare when we moved in, except for six or seven big oak trees, but over the years I have planted so many trees (dug up as saplings from the woods across the street) and they have grown so much, that now we are more or less an extension of the woods, except with a richer understory, as we have added flowering plants to be attractive to insects, and every year at least one more plant specific for the caterpillar of some moth or butterfly (passion flower for Gulf Fritillaries, milkweed for Monarchs, pipevine and sassafras and fennel for swallowtails, senna for sulphurs, and so on).

We were in the country, but now the city is beginning to press on us. When we drive by the houses of all the new subdivisions we see the perfect lawns, taken care of by lawn services that lay down so much poison you can smell the rotting carcases of the worms. At some point the owner has come out with a string to make a perfectly straight line on which to put, evenly spaced, the three Bradford Pear trees. Against the house six specimen plants spaced equidistant. Perhaps a pole is erected with a cute birdhouse which has only a painted entry hole. That way you don't have all the mess of birds living there.

There are tens of millions of yards like this in America (there are 25 to 50 million acres of single-family homes), so sterile (intentionally: who wants a lot of bugs around) they are sometimes called environmental black holes. What if those yards were more like ours? What would life be like?

Let me take you on a tour of recent sightings in the yard.

Some thirty years ago there was a terrific flowering of Spider Lilies in all the ditches along the railroad right-of-way. I dug up a few roots and planted them in the yard. This many years later when the spider lilies are long gone by the tracks (poisoned out by the railroad company), ours still send up their strong green leaves in early summer, and then, sometime in August, stalks shoot up seemingly overnight with buds at the top, and then for a month each day a new set of buds wait for twilight, then pop open.

Here's a jumping spider, Thiodina sylvana, in the adult male "red" form. It's fairly common, but it was so pretty and lively on the wall of my study I couldn't resist taking yet another picture of this species.

A bit more sinister, here was a large Tabanid Horse Fly laying a million eggs under a leaf of an aquatic iris in our pond. Now I have the moral dilemma: Do I get rid of this scourge and its offspring, or, now that I've photographed it, and have sort of a relationship with it, do I let it live? (I did what I usually do: I put the question out of my mind.)

I went out on a night op and didn't see many spiders, but saw this very nice creature, the Moonseed Moth, named after the vine its also very interesting caterpillar feeds on.

Well, I saw one nice spider on the night op, Neoscona crucifera, the Arboreal Orbweaver, very common but with an impressive web spread six feet across the lower branches of a tree. These big adult orbweavers don't become noticeable until late in the summer when suitably large flying insects are also at their peak.

Which brings up a mystery. Neosconas make their webs and come out at night. The yellow and black Argiope garden spiders are the day-shift big orbweavers, and we were having one of the best ever Argiope years (Cheryl stepped outside the front door one morning and there were three Argiopes feeding on tree frogs, and one feeding on a White-lined Sphinx, a very large day-flying hawk moth), but it seemed like every time an Argiope reached mature size and fattened up with eggs, it would suddenly disappear, leaving behind an empty web.

The empty web syndrome is still continuing, each time one of the younger spiders comes of age. I just checked, and there is not a single adult Argiope left in the yard. Something like this (but not quite as severe) happens most years, and I have wondered if hovering bats could pick them out of the center of their webs, or maybe a raccoon standing on its hind legs. My main suspect however is the pair of cardinals that live in our yard. I have seen what they do to our big caterpillars.

Speaking of caterpillars, a couple of weeks earlier we were surprised to suddenly spot a Monarch caterpillar in the dried and leathery late-season foliage of our milkweed plants. In the spring when we usually get eggs, we had only seen about four caterpillars, and we had managed to raise two of them to adulthood, when presumably they then headed north. At this time of year, late summer, we expect them to be heading south to the mountains of Mexico, with no intention of dallying along the way to lay more eggs. Anyway this fifth caterpillar of the year seemed precious, and we raised it in the house away from predators. It was already well grown when we brought it in the house, and quickly made its chrysalis.

A mere ten days later all the necessary changes and adjustments had been made, and the adult eclosed. We photographed it many times, then it took off on its maiden flight and never looked back.

We love caterpillars, they come in so many bizarre shapes, and have so many amazing behaviors. They're hard to find. They go to incredible lengths to blend into the background, or to not look like caterpillars. You must miss a hundred or a thousand for every one you see. But we suddenly had a little hot streak.

It started when I was trimming off the tips of some branches on a deciduous holly that were blocking a path, and as they fell away they revealed a very nice caterpillar, the Spotted Apatelodes.

It is interesting for being one of only two moth species in our area belonging to the Old World silk moth family (Bombycidae). Our Giant Silkworm Moths (Luna, Cecropia, etc.) belong to a New World family, the Saturniidae.

But while I was showing Cheryl this caterpillar, she looked a little farther along and found another beauty, a new one to us that we had to look up in our caterpillar book: The Interrupted Dagger. The names of moth caterpillars, it seems to me, can only be explained by the desperation of lepidopterists to find enough names to go around for the tens of thousands of species.

And then the high point of our hot streak. Cheryl suddenly pointed to a caterpillar that (judging by the number of chewed leaves around it) must have been in plain sight over the past few days, and that we must have walked by several times, a White Furcula. Just look at this amazing thing (that we had walked right by without seeing).

Here it is from some other angles.

The two hind legs have been converted into tentacles which, when the caterpillar is threatened, can be filled with hemolymph which greatly extends their length and they can then be whipped over the caterpillar's head to smack on the ground in front of it with an audible sound and a motion very like a scorpion striking with its stinger. Here's a picture I once took of one (well, of a close relation, the  Gray Furcula) doing it, and it is very impressive and I think quite likely to frighten off a small predator.

But this time we discovered another rather extraordinary ability this caterpillar has. It appeared to be full grown so we brought it into the house with some black cherry leaves, its food plant, and within a few days it suddenly changed color, to a sort of red-brown, a sign it was going to make its cocoon. We put in a bare twig for it, reading that that was where it would attach its cocoon, and then observed the operation.

First it used silk to attach itself to the twig.

It then wove itself into a thin cage.

From within the cage we could see the caterpillar twisting and turning as it wove a thick blanket about itself.

 It wove the inside cocoon thicker and thicker, until slowly it became opaque.

The next day it was complete, and resembled a woody thickening, perhaps like a stem gall, and that is how it is going to spend the winter, a little bite of protein in plain sight of everyone, but trusting to its power of deception.