Do I know you?

juvenile Copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis on rainbarrel
I passed one of the rainbarrels yesterday afternoon and glanced down to see this guy hanging out in the bare patch of sun that was breaking through the backyard trees. With this coloration, I have no doubts that this is a Copes grey treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis,) and it was the same rainbarrel as this little spud (the one on the dime) so, same one, now sporting more adult coloration? I honestly can’t say – I didn’t have a dime handy to show comparative scale, but this one is roughly twice the size of the one in that post. And you’ll notice, it has no green on it at all, unlike the one seen here. They’re really not making my job easy, are they?

Sunday slide 38

juvenile American alligator Alligator mississippiensis with just head showing among reeds
I think the reeds give a pretty good indication of scale, but just in case, the first thing I’ll point out is that you’re looking at the head of an American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis,) and a small one at that – much less than a half-meter in length, probably closer to 35cm. Most of the gator is submerged, and you’re seeing just the top of its head and snout, and the reflection of the same.

It’s getting to the point where I don’t remember where I took every photo anymore; this is not so much a function of age (I don’t think,) but of numbers – there are just too many images in the folders, and no small amount of them are gator shots. Since I’d scanned this one a long time ago for other purposes, I had to go back and find the original to spark my memory, which worked nicely because it not only had a date, it had a selection of other images from the same session. So I can confidently say now that this was shot in 2002, on Blackpoint Wildlife Drive in Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge (immediately adjacent to Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center,) and my sister and her husband were standing nearby. I’d taken them up there specifically to see Florida wildlife, alligators chief among them, but my sister was unimpressed with the small size of what we found (including another twice as long and much closer,) despite them being completely wild. A day or so later, she opted to visit one of those ridiculous tourist traps which promise live alligator shows so she could see big ones, and of course all of the shameless pandering to yokels that this entails. So much for authentic experiences…

Regardless, I’ve always liked this image for the abstract nature of the ‘floating’ reeds and head, perhaps slightly confusing at first but easy enough to fathom once one looks closely enough. Having the viewer want to spend time on the image is always a plus.

Just because, part 24

residual foam from surf during sunrise
This is just a leftover from the North Topsail Beach trip in May, one of the shots that I liked but never posted then. Seemed like a good time for it – you know, if you refer back to a year ago.

They are if I say so

I have a tendency to lump reptiles and amphibians into the same general classification, including within my stock categories, even though either is just as close to, say, badgers – the phylum Chordata is the last common point for all of them. But fine – you want me to make a separate post to break them all out? Is that what you want? Because I’ll do it if you want.

On a trip to the NC Botanical Garden about a month ago I was, of course, on the lookout for the green anoles. It turns out that I didn’t see one, even when I thought I did. And in fact, the opportunity to see them has now entirely passed. No, they didn’t go extinct, but the name did – they are now, apparently, Carolina anoles (yet still Anolis carolinensis) – another reason to check up on species even when I know what the hell they are. But of those, I saw a couple.

Carolina anole Anolis carolinensis deep in shadow among leaves
This one, a juvenile about half adult size (or maybe simply a half-adult – I can never keep those two apart,) was being more shy than usual and scampered for cover almost as soon as I saw it, going deep into the leaves. Since the day was overcast with the occasional raindrop, this was pushing the limits for useful results while handholding. The photo still makes the lizard obvious, but anyone there in person would have had to have been quite sharp-eyed to see this one in its hiding place.

Another had initially been overlooked by me as I perused the foliage, and might have escaped attention entirely had it not moved its head suddenly when it could register on my peripheral vision.

Carolina anole Anolis carolinensis posed against mixed foliage
This one was a bit large even for an adult, and out in plain sight, so how I missed it on my initial pass I can’t say – since I was looking for just this species (okay, kinda,) I can’t figure how I overlooked it. But I probably would have seen it on second glance, so it jumped the gun by drawing attention to itself, like a little kid playing hide-and-seek. Good thing they don’t have the ability to giggle.

One more, because.

Carolina anole Anolisis carolinensis in even deeper shadow under flower
This is likely the same anole as the first pic up there, but I saw it on my second pass through the area. It was out on the upper surfaces of the leaves right near those flowers and I wanted to coax it towards the blossoms for a more fartistic composition, but it was having none of that. Still, after it dove for cover I still managed to put the frame together in a way that worked.

It does – stop backtalking.

green frog Lithobates clamitans lurking among lilies in pond
In a nearby pond planter, a green frog (Lithobates clamitans) or maybe it’s a Carolina frog, was hanging out in reasonably good cover among the lily pads, and stayed put as I maneuvered around for a portrait shot. I’m fairly certain that giant ear drum means it’s a male, and I’ll let you make all the comments that you want. Certainly nothing of the sort occurred to me.

This other one is a little freaky – I didn’t notice the crucial details until I got back and was unloading the card.

tadpoles feeding off skin of dismembered frog
Now, the state of the frog hadn’t escaped my attention; I do shots of this nature just for illustrative and ‘authentic’ purposes, because nature isn’t always pretty (or ever, if your only exposure is my stuff.) What I’d missed are the tadpoles clearly feeding from the skin of the dismembered frog. I mean, what the hell, guys? I thought you were vegetarians at this stage?

(They likely are, but the decaying frog is playing host to any number of pond growths, and that’s what they’re eating.)

We’ll head back home for some more savory images. I mentioned before that I was hoping to establish some green treefrogs (Hyla cinerea) in the area, and it appears I have been successful. Even as the heat of summer caused most of the frogs to seem scarce and the common Copes grey treefrogs hadn’t been visible for a while, one night I suddenly found two of the green treefrogs, hanging out on the pokeweed plant in the backyard.

Green treefrog Hyla cinerea perched on pokeweed Phytolacca americana
The frogs seem to know what they blend into the best, and the pokeweed is the closest thing we have in the yard to their coloration, but it also attracts countless other species like varieties of marauding caterpillars, so they’re getting food there too. Every once in a while, I find their daytime hiding place somewhere near the back porch, often enough under the grill cover – I have to check the grill over carefully before I fire it up.

Not too far away, closer to the backyard pond, sits one of our rainbarrels, and for a couple of days I was finding a minuscule variety of frog hanging out there.

tiny juvenile frog, possibly chorus frog, on dime for scaleThis one was pretty shy, which is good because it means it will seek shelter when danger threatens, but it makes my job a bit tougher. I wanted a scale shot and had the dime handy, but the frog wasn’t taking direction well and kept hopping further away, making me place the dime in a new position ahead of it in the hopes that it would cross it. Eventually, with many false starts, I got what I was after, even th9ough the flash angle wasn’t ideal. Based on the size there’s a good chance it’s a form of chorus frog, which are much smaller than the either of the treefrog species.

More fun has been the trio of tiny frogs that have taken up residence on the front porch. The Girlfriend has gotten a pair of ornamental sweet potato plants with large pale green leaves, and a few posts back I said something about them attracting the golden tortoise beetle. But the frogs seem to like them too.

unidentified juvenile frog on ornamental sweet potato leaf
Again, I’m not sure what species these are. The leaves run roughly the size of your palm, so the frog itself is literally fingernail-sized – yes, even smaller than a thumbnail. Since the nights have been getting cooler now, the frogs are often seen during the day, venturing out to bask in the sunlight. They’re semi-wary, not real wild about my leaning in close, but if I go slow they’ll often stay put. Of course, I discovered the limits of their patience to determine what I could get away with.

unidentified juvenile frog deep under leaves
One of them seems more shy that the others, too. And one of them is more gold-hued, making for a colorful portrait.

unidentified juvenile frog portrait
But yeah, I can still get close. It seems likely that these are new emergents from the backyard pond, so quite possibly the same species that I was photographing as tadpoles, but I have no easy way of telling – there were several species in there at the same time and I see them sporadically enough not to be able to trace lineage.

As I close with my favorite composition (so far, anyway,) I’ll point out a little detail. There’s a pale spot under the eye, and this might be an indication that these are juvenile Copes grey treefrogs (Hyla chrysoscelis) – they have a telltale light spot edged with black as adults, and I’ve seen it in a juvenile, albeit one a bit larger than this. So, maybe? Either way, they’re nice little accents on our front porch plants – when anyone is sharp-eyed enough to distinguish them.

unidentified juvenile treefrog, possibly Copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis, on ornamental sweet potato leaf

Jim pic 44

painted hills under wispy clouds, Badlands South Dakota by James L. Kramer
This is probably my favorite of Jim’s Badlands shots, because of the light quality and the clouds in the sky – most of his other shots show skies that are brilliantly blue yet bare, in need of something to offset the solid color. Here, however, the color has softened, and not just in the sky – everything has a pastel appearance that comes very close to making this look like a painting. You can even see the brush strokes in the clouds and on the rock faces.

Wait a second. I think Jim might be trying to pull a fast one here…

[Want some irony? Often enough, painters try to make their images look like photographs, while occasionally photographers try to make their images look like paintings. Yes, art is weird.]

More than you might think

In doing an earlier post about local arthropods, it struck me how long it can sometimes take, and this is mostly because of the research (and only partially in trying to write flowing and coherent sentences – perhaps I should be devoting more time to that.) Let’s be blunt: blogs are an exercise in thinly-disguised narcissism, or at least those like mine are. Okay, mine is, perhaps alone. A lot of it is simply relating what I’m doing, finding, photographing, or wasting time thinking about, but somewhere in there, at an unknown point on the importance and impact scale, lies the idea that I should be imparting some kind of useful information. That’s what makes it readable, right? Or would, anyway.

Chief among the habits that I’ve adopted is including the scientific name whenever I can. To some extent, this is because common names are wildly variable and subject to regional differences (I can’t tell you how many different names there are for wood lice,) while scientific names are a constant, even through other countries. But more importantly, having the name attached means that someone is more likely to find my images when searching for them under the proper terms. The serious users – as in, the ones most likely to pay for rights – will be more often searching under the scientific names, especially since a lot of different species might fall under the broad umbrella of “daddy longlegs” or whatever. So, I work to include those names almost every time.

But it can be challenging. Like, if I have no real idea where to begin looking, I can only start a search based on rough appearance, and things like, “small white flower clusters” can turn up a shitload of hits, most of which bearing no resemblance to what I’m trying to find. BugGuide.net is an awesome resource, and is responsible for 99.9% of the arthropod names that I provide. If you can’t find something, all you have to do is post a photo of it and someone will be along to tell you what it is, if it’s at all possible from the photo – many times it isn’t, because species differentiation can depend on subtle differences that are hard to make out, or something seen only on the underside, and so on. But of course, receiving an answer from their crew of volunteer entomologists requires that you send in the pic and wait for a reply, and most times when I’m posting I haven’t had that much foresight.

While some types of insects are easy to describe with a few words in the search bar, producing everything on the site which seems to match the keywords, others are not so simple. For the unidentified insect in the post that spurred this idea, I tried “thin assassin” because, seriously, how else could I describe it? It looked like an assassin to me. And I was wrong – it’s not. Near as I can tell, it was one of many species of “rice bug,” which gets interesting because – well, let’s allow BugGuide’s own words to illustrate:

Photo-based identification barely possible. The key below has been designed by D.R. Swanson based on info provided in Ahmad (1965).

1 Posterior angles of pygophore acutely pointed; claspers crossed over pygophore; posterior margin of female seventh abdoinal sternum always with a short median split (subg. Oryzocoris)…2

  • Posterior angles of pygophore not acutely pointed; claspers crossed in a socket; posterior margin of female seventh abdominal sternum always medially biolobed, never with a split; [venter pale ochraceous]…S. (Stenocoris) tipuloides
  • 2 Median longitudinal red line on ventral abdominal segments present, sometimes faint; pygophore with posterior processes rounded and pointing posteriorly; basal portions of eighth paratergites largely visible…S. (O.) furcifera

  • Median longitudinal red line absent; pygophore with posterior processes pointed and facing each other; basal portions of eighth paratergites largely concealed by first pair of gonocoxae…S. (O.) filiformis
  • If you went a bit crosseyed trying to interpret that guide to identification, trust me, I did too. I did even if you didn’t – I think I’d need at least a semester of entomology just to become familiar with the fucking body parts. You know it’s bad when you have to do research in order to determine if you’ve successfully done your research.

    One of the flowers from that same post – in fact, the same photo – was also fun. I’d found a guide to identifying wildflowers, and it even sorted by state, and then by color. Which can help a lot, because my catch-all term is, “purple,” despite the very large number of variations within that definition, especially with flower colors. Except they didn’t even have a “purple” category and had it listed instead under “red.” And then, the image for the match was more white than anything else, especially when seen as a thumbnail. I think it was 20 minutes alone just to find Maryland Meadow Beauty (Rhexia mariana.) I mean, god damn, you better buy a print or web-usage contract if you came here while searching for either of those terms…

    It certainly does not help that I’ve fallen into concentrating on arthropods. I have no background whatsoever in entomology, and there are literally thousands of species on the North American continent alone, with lots of tiny variations. Which is why you often see hedging; I’ll list something as “likely” a particular species simply because I cannot know for sure. It’s easy to know if you have a raccoon, and even if there were three subspecies it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out. But caterpillars, for instance? They’re almost all green, so what do I search on? And even when I think I have a positive ID, I might have no idea how many different species look almost exactly like that, making my confidence entirely misplaced.

    Which brings up one small flaw with BugGuide.net, something that could have helped enormously. They appear to have no keywords attached to species pages, and no ability to even search by region; their search engine seems to mostly find text from comments or replies. On occasion, I will switch to Google itself and search the webbernets at large, because a descriptive phrase can garner more hits there. Guided by a potential match, I can then refine the details through other sources, which is often necessary because many of the hits I find are far from accurate.

    And then, there are the variations. Just about every guide that provides illustrative images will only provide one. Even with something as relatively simple as frog species within this state, there can be a lot of variation in color patterns and size just for adults, to say nothing of how much difference there can be with juveniles. There are several frogs in the yard on which I cannot pin down a positive ID, because they don’t look like any image, or match any description, that I’ve found. No, it’s unlikely that I’ve discovered a new species; the guides just don’t include enough (any) details about juveniles.

    Not all of this is for posting, by the way – I also have to provide this information within my own database, because that’s the best way of finding images for clients. My first photo sale, of water striders, came with a request for exact species, and I was embarrassed that I couldn’t provide it. I know a bit better now; without very close examination (read: high magnification or dissection of a dead example,) it can be impossible to tell. But it’s often because I’m posting recent images that I’m doing the legwork then.

    An unfortunate side effect is how some of this research ends up being duplicated – I look up species that I’ve already looked up before. It’s a symptom of the overall issue in the first place; what happens when I forget that the skinny non-assassin is a rice bug? Sure, I can have it in the database, but it’s not directly linked to a thumbnail, just an image filename, which is a number. So I go looking for those pics to get the file number, then into the database to get the names again – if I remember that I already have images of that species, which doesn’t always happen (getting old, you know the drill.) Just to give you an idea, I have over 20,000 arthropod images in my digital stock alone, so sifting through them isn’t a casual undertaking, and they’re sorted by filename and not by, for instance, “skinny suspected assassins” – the database is what I use for refined sorting, and that can only use the information that’s there (again, no “skinny bugs” categories or anything of the sort.) The blog, meanwhile, has tags of all the scientific names that I’ve used, but to find them I have to know what they are to start typing the damn name – they’re not cross-linked in any way. And let me tell you: even in the rare circumstances that I remember what the scientific name is, I often cannot spell it correctly from memory, because Latin doesn’t follow the same rules as English (or any, perhaps.) So on occasion I search for the species to find out where the species name can be found in my own system…

    So there you have it. When it seems that I’m taking a long time between posts, sometimes it’s because I’m not simply throwing up an image with, “This… is a bug!”

    A little advance notice


    Okay, everyone, take heed. Friday, September 15th is International Dive Into A Gas Giant Day! NASA is celebrating by sending its orbital probe Cassini down into the atmosphere of Saturn, which it has been taking photos of for the past thirteen years. This could be encouraging to many people out there, since it shows that perseverance may pay off: it took over a decade of lurking and spying, but Cassini is finally going to gain entry.

    Meanwhile, I’m trying to give you some time to prepare, since finding a way to celebrate Dive Into A Gas Giant Day might prove a little challenging. While we have a few select gas giants on Earth, I’m not suggesting that anyone should even attempt to dive into them; I’d recommend keeping as much distance as possible, actually. Which means avoiding 1211 Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan…

    Okay, yeah, I’ve been doing a fake holiday every month, and I don’t think Dive Into A Gas Giant Day is going to catch on. But the event is real; Cassini will enter Saturn’s atmosphere on Friday, the end of a long and remarkably productive mission. We’ve seen more detail about Saturn itself and its curious hexagonal polar storm, its various rings, and the makeup of quite a few of its moons – the probe, in fact, found seven more moons during its mission, and might even have witnessed the birth of another. And Enceladus is a relatively promising candidate for extraterrestrial life, if we find a way to get past the ice layer.

    Now, if you look at the dates of the mission, you might find fault with NASA and JPL, since the plunge is going to take place exactly one month shy of the twentieth anniversary of the launch – wait a second; didn’t I just say “thirteen years?” Now, c’mon, think about it – Cassini was launched 20 years ago, but it took seven just to get to Saturn, probably because the GPS satellites are in orbit only around Earth, and who you gonna ask for directions out there? But that’s orbital mechanics for you, for both aspects, really. Cassini had to do a few flybys to get itself out to Saturn, and decaying its orbit to get it to enter Saturn’s atmosphere takes a bit of juggling – it’s been in process for years, in fact. Mucking about with this just to make a meaningless anniversary isn’t really worth the effort, if it was possible at all. Remember, Cassini is out there to gather information about Saturn, its rings, and its moons, and this requires some pretty careful orbital mechanics. You can’t just aim for a moon and flit off there – you have to adjust an oblong orbit to intercept a moon as it trundles past on its own circuit.

    Are we going to see something really cool as Cassini enters Saturn’s cloud tops? Well, there might be some detailed approach images, but chances are once it gets close everything is going to become a monochromatic haze, and once it ‘enters’ these clouds (there’s likely no firm demarcation, just an increasing density,) the light will drop to nothing quickly, and as the gases thicken Cassini will simply fail and break up. While there might be a solid core deep within, Cassini will be toast long before it could ever reach it.

    While I close with an image of Saturn’s moon Mimas against the rings, I’ll leave you with a couple of links. The two images here and eight others can be found at this link, with another ten from 2015 at this one. The mission finale is already linked at top, but the broad overview of Cassini’s history can be found here. And finally, the coolest image of its history, without argument, can be found here – be sure to click on it for the high-resolution version.

    Enjoy the holiday!


    UPDATE: Astronomy Picture of the Day today has a virtual animation of flying around Saturn, based on Cassini images. For some reason it starts in the middle, so you might want to click on the player and take it back to the beginning, but I admit the impressive stuff doesn’t start until that middle point. Bear in mind that Cassini didn’t actually fly these paths – it’s all computer trickery. But the images that they’re based on is real.

    Jim pic 43

    mazelike expanse of crevices, Badlands South Dakota by James L. Kramer
    Jim told me that, standing up on top of the hills where he took this pic, he could hear the desperate cry of hikers that had ventured down to the valley floors and gotten lost in the natural rock maze. Plus the occasional scream as one would get eaten by a Griffindor…

    Okay, I lie, Jim would pay no attention to anyone that idiotic. But I did finally look up the geologic history of the Badlands, and found that it’s a lot softer than I imagined (as Jim mentioned in a corrective comment on a previous post.) The area is all sedimentary rock, which the distinctive layers indicate, but weak stuff, not like shale or slate. Somewhere around the time the dinosaurs were leaving the neighborhood, this was the washout region from the Rocky Mountains, receiving the settling sediments from the erosion of those mountains, as well as a few layers of volcanic ash, yet there wasn’t enough accumulation to build up the weight that would fuse the layers into tougher rock. Before this could happen the entire region was uplifted, which then meant that water was running off of it rather than pooling over it, and the valleys started to form through what was once lake or ocean bottom. With bigger hills nearby, this area would have eroded away entirely by now, but since it’s still largely flat the runoff generally comes from rain, which isn’t as destructive as, say, rivers and glacial meltwater. Nonetheless, the region is said to lose 2-3cm (about an inch) in height each year, which is pretty fast as far as erosion goes.

    So the lost hikers only have to bide their time, and the maze will drop low enough to see their way out easily. No biggie.

    Sunday slide 37

    American bobcat Lynx rufus drinking
    This one’s only about seven years old I think, not too long before my slide shooting petered out in favor of digital. Well, not really in favor of, since I still like the color register of slides, but it became harder and more expensive to get them processed, and when doing the more demanding pursuits of macro, it was easier to a) shoot several frames to help ensure critical focus was nailed, and b) see that the lighting was working the way I needed it.

    Anyway, this is a bobcat (Lynx rufus) in the NC Zoological Park in Asheboro, NC. I have seen bobcats in the wild, twice, both times so fleetingly that I never even started the motion to bring a camera to bear. Maybe someday, but they’re very scarce around here and I’m rarely spending time in an area where they’re more common. Even when they’re common they’re not, tending to be secretive and more nocturnal, much like the foxes, which we do have in this area and I yet have no photos of. Crappy video, yes, but no photos.

    However, this is also an edited photo, since the flash was mounted on the hotshoe of the camera and produced really bright reflections from those eyes. The original, in fact, looks like this:

    American bobcat Lynx rufus drinking, without editing
    This comes from having the flash too close to the lens and getting a direct reflection from the retina, and can vary depending on how close the subject is and how dilated their pupils are. Usually, I know when this is going to happen and can take steps to prevent it, but sometimes you take what you can get, and getting the flash off-camera on a cord to get outside of the reflectance angle would have required a second person to do the aiming of the flash, and I had only moments to get the shot.

    But I want you to go back to the first and look carefully at the eyes, because this is something that is often missed when “red-eye removal” is done. You can’t simply black out the entire reflection and expect it to look natural, because eyes very frequently have natural reflections from the surface, called a catchlight. Those bright spots need to remain to look right, so your editing needs to take this into account. It often takes a bit of practice and some familiarity with more-than-basic editing functions, like de-selecting the outer surface reflections after selecting the retinal reflections, and fuzzing the edges of the selection to prevent unnaturally sharp edges. Not to mention being sure that both eyes are aligned right and you don’t have one reflection skewed further from center than the other to produce a crosseyed or walleyed effect [spellcheck doesn’t like “crosseyed” but is just fine with “walleyed” – go figure].

    If and when I get my ‘true wild’ shots of a bobcat, they’ll likely be much worse than this because the conditions will be demanding, yet at the same time they’ll be, you know, true wild shots, and I’ll be more proud of them.

    Let’s do this by category

    As I mentioned, I have more pics to put up and have been juggling time to try and get to them – not at all helped by the number of unforeseen circumstances that spring up on top of the routine things already taking up my time. So right now, I’m splitting up the posts by subject matter of the photos, and today is arthropod day.

    My attempts to capture more Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis) behavior this year just weren’t panning out, from the squirrels that ate two of the three egg cases that I’d purchased to the rapid disappearance of most of the newborn from the remaining (though I did get some nice video,) there really wasn’t much opportunity, and I even saw none during visits to the botanical garden. I’d last seen the pair in the backyard just after the failed attempt to photograph one molting, then bupkiss. However, I recently rediscovered an adult in almost that same location, hanging out on the pokeweed, so this was likely one of those pair.

    adult Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis on American pokeweed Phytolacca americana at night
    It spent a few days at least lurking there, possibly scarfing up the numerous caterpillars which were stripping leaves, then one appeared on the screen of a front window and hung out on the porch for a few hours; right size and shape, but beyond that I haven’t yet found a way to distinguish individuals apart so I can’t confirm that it was the same one.

    Earlier I mentioned keeping plants in planters in the front yard because of the foul soil, and among them is a basil plant (man, we had such a batch growing in the old place! Homemade pesto and great sandwiches…) Early on, a spiny assassin bug (Sinea spinipes) moved in and staked out various spots near the flowers, and there it remains yet, now finally in adult form. I’ve only once seen it with prey, when I didn’t have time for shots (imagine that,) but it seems to be doing well.

    spiny assassin Sinea spinipes on sweet basil Ocimum basilicum
    In case it’s confusing, the two large and nasty-looking forelegs are spread out in a broad V in front, with the head and thorax extending upwards from that as if it’s holding its nose in the air; you can see the proboscis, the prey-stabber/drainer, stretched under that. The abdomen is to the left, almost unseen among the leaves.

    Unfortunately, the assassin measures less than 10mm in length, too small to handle the katydids that are abundant in the yard, so I have to chase them off myself when I find them on the basil, mint, or butterfly bushes. Which isn’t to say I won’t shoot a pic just for giggles.

    unidentified juvenile katydid Scudderia on sweet basil Ocimum basilicum
    The Girlfriend put together a few decorative plants to flank the front steps, and among them was some kind of sweet potato with broad, pale green leaves; we’re going to see them more in a later post. They attract a certain beetle that I’ve seen before but never photographed in detail, one that’s pretty cool actually: a golden tortoise beetle (Charidotella sexpunctata.)

    golden tortoise beetle Charidotella sexpunctata on underside of sweet potato leaf
    True to their name, they are a brilliant shiny gold hue with transparent margins – until they feel threatened. Then, they immediately change color to orange, often with spots, to mimic lady beetles, and will usually fly off quickly, so photographing them while gold is challenging. I got lucky in finding a couple hanging out on the underside of the potato leaves, and went in at night to get the shots. It meant lying on my back and getting bit by ants, but I’ve got a few images of them in gold phase now.

    This is curious (no, not my trading off ant bites for photos, but the coloration of the beetles themselves.) I fully understand the change to lady beetle colors, since that species has a method of deterring predators and is known for that, so mimicking those colors may keep the tortoise beetles from being preyed on. But the shiny gold? The only thing I can think of that makes sense is appearing like a dewdrop, or possibly even a urine drop, and thus being ignored by predators. In fact, that reminds me of another shot that I didn’t have lined up but now gets into the post.

    chrysalis of possible red-spotted purple admiral Limenitis arthemis astyanax
    I found this on the side of the house, oh, about ten days ago, wanted to keep an eye on it but, yeah right, so it hatched out while I wasn’t looking. You can be excused if you thought it was simply bird shit, because that’s the idea – the caterpillar that made this chrysalis most likely looked almost the same, but the butterfly that resulted was much nicer looking. Look close and you can see the developing details, and know that the coloration is all from the pupa – the chrysalis case is transparent. Near as I can tell, this is the chrysalis of a red-spotted purple admiral (Limenitis arthemis astyanax,) which seems to be the subspecies that can be found in the area. The caterpillar/larval form also looks like bird shit, and thus escapes the attention of all but the creepiest birds – isn’t evolution cool? Somewhere in the distant past, a caterpillar randomly produced a gene variant that gave it a slight resemblance to feces, and because this caused the predators to avoid it slightly more often than the others without the variant, that gene gained a greater dominance in the population. Other variants enhanced the appearance and again gained more of a foothold; there easily could have been, and likely were, variants that made the larva look less like feces, but a failure to gross out birds just means you get eaten more often, so those variants would die out much faster. Eventually we find ourselves here, with a chrysalis that looks like a dab of bird shit, pasted in plain sight on the side of the house but ignored by everything except photographers with a highly questionable sense of curiosity. Don’t ask me what that says about human evolution (but I don’t have kids, so stop worrying.)

    I said in an earlier post that the butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii) were attracting other visitors, and here’s my favorite: the genus Hemaris, or clearwing moths. They go by a lot of different common names.

    clearwing moth Hemaris feeding from butterfly bush Buddleia davidii
    These hummingbird mimics have a distinct preference for certain flowers, and the butterfly bush is chief among them, at least as far as I’ve observed. There is also a species variant that looks more like a bumblebee or carpenter bee, but it’s not hard to tell any of them apart from what they’re mimicking at least: bees always land on the flowers while these moths remain hovering, and hummingbirds have a different flight pattern, faster and darting around a lot more, rarely visiting flowers in sequence, and often backing off from feeding to check for danger. However, telling the different Hemaris species apart can be more challenging. There are three species that appear like this in the area, H. gracilis, H. thysbe and H. diffinis; the last has dark legs and is out of the running for my photos here, but H. gracilis has reddish forelegs while H. thysbe has pale or white ones. I’ll let you tell me which one I’ve caught based on these photos, because it could be either.

    clearwing moth Hemaris portrait feeding from butterfly bush Buddleia davidii
    By the way, the mimicry might be even better than we suspect; one of these was working around the butterfly bush while a real hummingbird (I think) was drinking from the adjacent feeder. Hummingbirds are notoriously territorial, and it took off after the moth momentarily, though whether it was actually fooled into thinking it was an intruding hummingbird, or whether it was simply protecting its food from any species, I can’t say for sure. I can’t say much for sure, can I? Really, I just hedge my bets in writing in case I have to run for office and someone is looking to use my past against me…

    A recent trip to Mason Farm Biological Reserve netted a handful of arthropod species as well. The Immodest Mr Bugg made the mistake of saying that a particular plant that we stopped to look at didn’t have anything on it, which I took as a challenge, since virtually all plants have some kind of arthropod on them – you just have to look closely. True enough, within thirty seconds I found this little guy, which I’m pretty sure is an Acacesia hamata – you can see another image of the species here.

    Acacesia hamata in defensive posture
    While looking through the viewfinder, I wasn’t sure if I could capture a particular detail, but upon unloading I found that I did: you can see the reddish eyes peeking out right alongside the ‘knees.’ Or ‘ankles.’ Some joint, anyway.

    By the way, it’s a background goal of mine to capture a species in the act of stitching together leaf edges like this for their shelter, since there are quite a few that do this. Probably a tricky challenge, so don’t be looking for the shots later this week.

    The preference of certain arthropods for specific plants was fairly evident on this trip, but none more so than the jagged ambush bugs (genus Phymata.) There were numerous wildflower species to be found, but the white clusters of what is probably boneset (genus Eupatorium) were the only place I found this diminutive predator, and I found several of them.

    jagged ambush bug Phymata on probable boneset Eupatorium cluster
    Aside from the ability to hide among the clusters easily, there is also the likelihood that the flowers attract the right size pollinator for ambush bugs to capture. Or it could just be a cultural thing of ambush bugs – who am I to say?

    jagged ambush bug Phymata on probable boneset Eupatorium
    Jagged ambush bugs have great details, but they’re tiny little things so capturing this detail is challenging – my best results came with some elaborate preparations, so it wasn’t happening on this trip.

    Okay, you know what? There’s a post coming up on doing research for these posts (for which I will probably have to do research,) but long story short: these things can take up way too much time. On a Maryland meadow beauty flower (Rhexia mariana) sat a just-barely-visible Hemapteran which I am not going to identify right now because the flower took long enough. The blossom was perhaps 20mm across, so you know how subtle the bug was.

    unidentified Hemaptera on Maryland meadow flower Rhexia mariana
    I had brought the macro rig along, and was taking it a bit more seriously on this outing than on many that I have with students, but there was also only so far that I was going to go, and elaborate positioning or doing lots of variations wasn’t in there – most of the shots were of the ‘lean in and snag a couple of frames’ variety. This makes it easy to miss the crucial focus, but again, this was a student outing and not a ‘working’ session. So as we take a look at this inset of the same frame, you know I was pleased – and that the nights have finally been getting low enough in temperature to hit the dew point.

    unidentified Hemaptera on Maryland meadow flower Rhexia mariana with dew
    And finally, we close with a fartsy shot as the rising sun backlit a partridge pea plant (Chamaecrista fasciculata,) the most numerous wildflower in the Reserve by far. While I needed to shade the camera with my outstretched hat to keep the sun’s glare off the lens and thus out of the photo, the light brought out the tiny orb weaver’s web quite nicely – it’s not 5cm across, but it’s a nice accent to the plant.

    tiny orb web on partridge pea plant Chamaecrista fasciculata