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Starting off..

For some time, friends have been suggesting I start a blog, and I have finally got around to trying. I live in two wild and beautiful places: Western Maine , USA, and the Cotswolds, England.  I also travel to far-flung much wilder places.

I take photos with my trusted Panasonic Lumix, sometimes beautiful photos, more often photos that tell a story.

The blog will be erratic, depending on what catches my eye.

For my first post, from Maine, here are the tree swallows that nested in our old purple martin house and raised four young. They fledged two weeks ago.

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Cruising along…
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She often fed them without touching down at all
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It took a while to ram this down the throat of the largest chick

 

 

The Red Eft: not just a great Scrabble word*

I bent to look at a little bright yellow fungus, and lo and behold, a red eft:

Red eft

I have never seen one before, and I thought it was a salamander. Close, but no cigar. It is indeed in the salamander family, but newts are a semi-aquatic sub-group whose juveniles are terrestrial. The red eft is the juvenile form of the Eastern Newt, Notophthalmus viridescens. The larva is aquatic, and so is the adult, but the juvenile lives on land for two or three years before eventually returning to water.

Here it is in close-up. It is about 2 inches long.

Red eft

The neon orange color warns predators that this is an unwise choice of meal, since the animal’s skin produces a poison called tetrodotoxin. What is more, the tetrodotoxin in these orange efts is seven times more concentrated than that of the green adults (Spicer et al 2018) .

Some Eastern Newt larvae have been found in the pitchers of the carnivorous plant, Sarracenia purpurea. 

Pitcher plants

This cannot possibly be a good choice of home, because even in the unlikely event that the larva survives the gastric juices of the plant and the eft then hatches, when it tries to escape the downward-facing hairs on the inside wall will make the climb out pretty challenging.

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I fear the hefty eft effed as it left .. (sorry, I couldn’t resist. Best said out loud in a Cockney accent with no ‘h’) .

* That name ‘eft’ is from Old English efte. ‘an eft’ became ‘a neft‘ and then ‘a newt’. The juveniles kept the old name.

 

The lady beetle: Homage to Kafka

Franz Kafka’s novel Metamorphosis was thought by Vladimir Nabokov to refer to a beetle *, and this is the story of a small beetle that metamorphoses through three distinct stages (post-egg), until it appears as our familiar ladybird (or ladybug in the US).  There are rather a lot of photos today, and little text.

We begin with the larva, this one is I think the fourth of five stages:

Harmonia axyridis, harlequin ladybird

It splits its skin (leaving white spiky remnants still visible), to form a pupa:

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or two:

Harmonia axyridis, pupa

The pupa is motionless, and at the mercy of predators:

Harmonia axyridis, pupa

And from the pupa emerges the soft, spotless adult, head first and wings last:

Harmonia axyridis, emergingHarmonia axyridis, emergingHarmonia axyridis, emergingHarmonia axyridis, emerging

The empty pupa case is left behind:

Harmonia axyridis, pupa

and the soft vulnerable ladybird rests with its wings expanded:

Harmonia axyridis, emerging

Gradually the wing cases harden, and the spots develop. This next photo is taken 2 1/4 hours after emergence:

Harmonia axyridis, emerging

24 hours later, it has fully darkened and the spots have grown too:

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Small miracles, every day. here is a time lapse 3 minute video of the whole process:

 

To be precise, my photos are of a Harlequin Ladybird, or Harmonia axyridis, photographed in Maine, USA, but an immigrant from Eurasia. It is a member of the family Coccinelidae.

* Kafka’s beetle is sometimes referred to as a cockroach, but Nabokov, who was a renowned lepidopterist, thought it was just a “big beetle”, and drew a picture on his own annotated copy of Metamorphosis. It looks quite like a ladybird to me!

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From Josh Jones’ blog: http://www.openculture.com/2015/10/franz-kafka-says-the-insect-in-the-metamorphosis-should-never-be-drawn.html

Hummingbirds rock

I love those photos of someone’s dog having a good shake after a swim, water spraying everywhere. But I had never seen a bird shake, until last week. It rained overnight, and in the morning up flew a hummingbird, perched on a twig, and:

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Hmmmmm….is it a bird? No, it’s a moth.

If you see something out of the corner of your eye hovering near red flowers, you automatically think “Hummingbird”, but no, these are Clearwing moths. This one is a Hummingbird Clearwing, Hemaris thysbe

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They are the size of very large bumblebee, with the long curled tongue typical of moths, and they are quite territorial, very much like actual hummingbirds. These two below had a tiff just after I took this photo, and then one retreated:

Hummingbird moth

The two above are a second species, the Snowberry Clearwing, Hemaris diffinis,  which has dark rather than pale legs, and two dark stripes on its underside. It is sometimes rudely called the flying lobster. I came across these two mating, flying around conjoined, then settling for a short rest on the grass:

Clearwing hummingbird moths mating

The clear wings are supposedly a consequence of losing the usual scales that cover a moth’s wings, because their flight habits are so energetic, though I find this hard to believe.

To see how they mimic hummingbirds, watch this brief video. If a real hummingbird comes close, the moth flees.

Most moths have small bodies and large wings, but these have huge bodies and relatively small wings, so the initial gestalt is very un moth-like.

I am for some reason reminded of a lovely story about Charles Darwin, told by his granddaughter, the author and wood-engraver Gwen Raverat. They were playing Lexicon, a predecessor of Scrabble. He put down ‘moth’, and she added ‘-er’ to the end. Darwin stared at this mysterious word and said “Mow-ther, mow-ther, there’s no such word as mow-ther.”

 

 

The Hermit Thrush exposed

I was walking with a friend in the woods, when a small brown bird suddenly flew up from the ground in front of us. On a lucky day (for us), this suggests we have disturbed a mother, quietly tending her nest. And there it was, concealed under a few small ferns, right in the middle of the trail:

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And containing two stunning blue eggs:

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The mother usually doesn’t go far, but she is hard to see in the dappled woodland. This time, we found her, a hermit thrush, Catharus guttatus faxoni:

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Ground-nesting birds seem to be running a terrible risk of discovery, and indeed studies show that the best predictor of nest success is how well-concealed and camouflaged the nest and eggs are. So why do they have bright blue eggs?? Search me.

Hermit thrushes may have two or even three broods per year, especially if the first brood fails. This brood is extremely late, although luckily for these chicks this is a species that migrates very late, mid-October being common, so they should make it out before winter closes in. Like many Mainers, they over-winter in Florida.

Hermit thrush song is haunting, with short 1.5 second snatches, called song types, separated by 2.5 second silences. Roach et al (2012) studied Maine Hermit Thrush song in detail. Each song type is slightly different, rather like a nightingale, and a male has a repertoire of up to 12 song types. Each male’s repertoire is entirely different. A song bout can have up to 100 song types in it. Listen here:

Human hermits are usually shown in caves, but here is a ground-nesting human hermit: John Singer Sargent’s The Hermit (Il solitario)

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The Metropolitan Museum if Art website says “Sargent based this painting on sketches he had made in Val d’Aosta, in the foothills of the Alps, in northwestern Italy. … When approving The Hermit as the translated title of the picture, Sargent wrote to the director of the Metropolitan, “I wish there were another simple word that did not bring with it any Christian association, and that rather suggested quietness and pantheism.”

Robber ambushed

[Not for the faint of heart]

A tiny war was fought in my yard this morning. While deadheading my flowers, I found a fierce battle underway, between a Jagged Ambush Bug, Phymata sp., (right), and a Friendly Robber Fly, Efferia aestuans:

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Both were alive and moving, but the ambush bug had the upper hand, and its pale green proboscis was sunk into the robber fly:

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I went away for half an hour, and when I came back the ambush bug was alone:

Jagged Ambush Bugs

I searched for the robber fly, and found it lying intact but motionless on a lower leaf:

Friendly Robber Fly, Efferia aestuans

It may or may not have been alive, but it was certainly paralyzed: ambush bugs inject a paralyzing poison through their proboscis, and then eat their prey at leisure. This ambush bug had foolishly allowed its prey to slide out of its formidable grip, uneaten.

Ambush bugs are so-named because they lie in wait, extremely well-camouflaged, until woe betide the unwary bug that wanders too close:

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Below is the same one in close-up, carefully positioned on the yellowy-black centre of the flower where it is almost invisible:

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The biblical phrase “they lay in ambush” fits its posture perfectly, and makes me realize why “sit in ambush” or “stand in ambush” just don’t cover it.

Appendix: Extra detail for those other obsessives like me:

Wikipedia says Robber Flies  “..have three simple eyes (ocelli) in a characteristic depression on the top of their head between their two large compound eyes. They also have a usually dense moustache of stiff bristles on the face; this is called the mystax, a term derived from the Greek mystakos meaning “moustache” or “upper lip”. The mystax has been suggested to afford some protection for the head and face when the flies deal with struggling prey” . You can see one of the simple eyes pretty clearly in the closeup below, and also the bristly mystax (today’s new word.)

Friendly Robber Fly, Efferia aestuans