Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet's Accident

As I looked out a window at home Sunday afternoon, I saw something small twisting in the wind from a tiny twig of a Winged Elm in the center of the backyard.  This species of elm, which is also called the Cork Elm by the peoples of the Muscogee (Creek) Indian Nation, has two corky "wings" on either side of some of its branches.   You can see one of these branches on the right-hand side of the picture below.   

At first I thought it might be a leaf, but the twisting was so constant and so regular. Using binoculars we saw a small bird suspended from the twig. It was so tiny that I immediately suspected that it was the Ruby-crowned Kinglet that had I seen visiting our suet feeders the past 5 weekends as I counted birds for Project FeederWatch (a Cornell University citizen science project).  For more information on this interesting activity click here.

Out in the backyard, I found it was indeed a kinglet hanging upside-down from an elm twig about nine feet above the ground. To reach the bird I needed to bend the twig toward me.  I grabbed the closest "tool" I could find which turned out to be a piece of downed tree branch that was partially covered with muddy red-orange clay.  I "hooked" the appropriate limb and pulled the ensnared bird closer until I could cup him in my left hand. After dropping the muddy stick, I used both sets of thumbs and forefingers to snap the twig from its branch while cradling the kinglet in confines my left hand.  Below is a picture of the kinglet with the twig entangled in its right wing.  Ruby-crowned kinglets are tiny greenish-gray winter visitors from summer breeding grounds in Canada and a few northern states.  They have a prominent white eye-ring that gives them a "big-eyed" appearance.  The leading edge of their primary wing feathers is lined with yellow and they have a white wing bar.  The males have a patch of crimson feathers on top of their heads that is often hidden.  During breeding season and when they are excited, they perk up these ruby red feathers into a sort of crest.

I found a pair of nail clippers and went to work on the twisted mat of feather barbs and barbules. In the picture below the twig appeared to have wedged between the second and third primary feathers apparently as the kinglet flew too closely to the elm.  The terminal bud of the twig is just in front of the kinglet's shoulder.  The yellow leading edges of several of the ten primary wing feathers are visible.

Eventually, with clay muddied fingers, I was able to remove the twig.  The kinglet's wing looked a mess, but fortunately, the twig had just been lodged between feathers and had not broken the wing.

The picture below shows the "offending" twig with remnants of barbs and barbules from the kinglet's primary feathers.

Before I released the kinglet from my cupped hand, he preened the primary wing feathers a few times to return some sort of order to his wing and to clean off some of the muddy clay.  As I opened my hand, he flew fairly stably to an azalea bush about six feet away. He sat and preened a few more times and then sat motionless.

I left the porch and circled widely around the azalea so I could slowly approach him head-on.  I was concerned that the stress of having his wing caught up in the twig and then being handled by a "giant" might have been too much for him. I pinched off a piece of suet from a feeder as I neared the kinglet. Parting the azalea branches I eased the morsel of suet toward the "little king". To my surprise he took two small pieces and swallowed them!

In just a few more seconds he flew off to the row of camellias twenty feet across the yard. Later in the day I saw him back in the area near the suet feeders. I'm hoping he'll make it!  I will be looking for him this weekend as I am "counting" birds again.

For more information on Ruby-crowned kinglets you can visit the links below:

Some of the information in this post came from these sources.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

A Green Lynx Spider and Her Babies

October is a good time to find a mother Green Lynx Spider caring for her babies.

Green Lynx Spiders are a found across most of the United States.  In size they are a little smaller than a quarter and the male is slightly smaller than the female. Green Lynx Spiders spend much of their time in shrubs and bushes where they hunt for insects.  They are not web builders, but are ambush predators that hide in the leaves wait for insects to land near by.  The Green Lynx Spider then "pounces" on its prey a little like a cat would (a lynx is a species of wild cat similar to a bobcat).  The spider uses long spines on its legs to help hold the captured insect until it can consume its prey. These spiders have been seen actually leaping into the air to catch an insect flying near the bush or shrub.  Green Lynx Spiders have been used in cotton fields and soybean fields to help control crop damaging insects, though they will capture and eat honeybees as well.  Green Lynx Spiders are reluctant to bite when handled.  Though the bite can be painful, it is not venomous and quite harmless to humans.

In early October I noticed a group of leaves in an ornamental shrub (Winterberry Holly) behind the lab that were knitted together with silk.  If you look closely, you can see a tan-colored sphere under a leaf on the upper right side of the bush.

A leg or two of the mother spider is visible under the spherical egg sac as she protects her precious brood.

The mother's legs are quite long.  Her legs are pale green and covered with numerous black spots and long, slender spines.

She sheltered her egg sac from direct sunlight by placing it under the leaves on hot sunny days.

Most days when I looked for her she had the egg sac clutched close to her.  The Green Lynx Spider can lay from 25 to 600 eggs in her egg sac.

One day I found her on the other side of the leaf from her egg sac, but she quickly rushed to it and latched on to protect it.

Late in October the cluster of now dried up leaves where the Green Lynx spider and her egg sac had been were missing from the top of the shrub.  I found the leaves on the ground under the bush and worried something had happened to them.  As I started to head back to the lab, I noticed another cluster of greener leaves still attached to the shrub.  When I looked closer, there was mother spider with her egg sac.
The mother spider tacked together this new cluster of leaves to provide shelter from the ever colder weather of late October.

On warm days she would move her egg sac out in the open to warm the embryos.  When the mother spider built the egg sac back in the late summer it would have been light green, but now in late October its color has faded to a light tan.
The mother has a slender green abdomen with reddish brown chevron shaped markings.
The mother spider guards her egg sac.  She actively tears open small portions of the egg sac as the baby spiders develop to help them emerge when they are ready for the outside world.
Here is the mother spider with her treasured egg sac of developing spider embryos. 
If you look closely, you can see the mother's eight eyes in a light colored cluster on top of her green head.  She has an arc of four eyes across the top with two larger eyes below and two smaller eyes close together beneath the large eyes.

A good picture of Green Lynx Spider eyes can be seen here:

This is a great place to look at all the arrangements of spider eyes.  The Lynx spider is about 3/4 of the way down the page.  Most spiders have eight eyes, but some have six.

Every few days I would check on the mother spider hoping to see her babies.  I began to wonder if they had already hatched or that the eggs had failed.  There had already been one frost and I did not know how that would affect the brood of babies.
The mother spider was quite calm and let me pull the leaves back to look more closely.  Spiders are not humans, but it is warming to me to see how protective she is of her offspring.  What I want to say is that she is a "loving" mother.  OK, I'm a little weird!
Finally!  Late in October I found the mother with her babies.  The babies are already growing.  You can see one of the shed skins of one of the babies near the back of the mother spider.

The mother spider seemed many days to be an acrobat as she hangs around tending to her little ones.

The mother spider and her young spiderlings dangle like ornaments on their silken threads.

A few days later in early November the cluster of leaves has gotten very brown and dried from the cold late autumn nights.  The baby Green Lynx Spiders are active, but I cannot find the mother.  I looked all around the shrub and on the ground but did not find her.  I know from reading that Green Lynx Spiders only live for one year. I don't know if a bird perhaps made a meal of her or if she left the shrub on her own.

I let one of the spiderlings crawl onto my hand.  It looks a bit different than its mother.  Its abdomen is orange and yellow.  The black spots and spines are already apparent on its legs.

I returned the spiderling to one of the berries on the bush where its mother had made her egg sac.  I hope it survives the winter.  I will be looking for it in the Spring.
Some of the information in this post came from these sources.
Peggy made me do this!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Bird Nesting Box Surprise!

Late September wood warbler migrants bring a surprising discovery.

After delivering a second dead wood warbler to the "wet lab" at Prairie Ridge Ecostation on Monday (see end of this post), I took a short walk along a couple of the trails there.  I came upon a nesting box with a decorative flag fluttering in the gentle breeze.

This is bird nesting box #4 at Prairie Ridge EcoStation.  Do you see the "decorative flag" hanging from the nesting box mounting pole?

In this close-up you can see this is a fresh looking snake shed.  From time to time as a snake grows, it begins to get too big for its skin.  To take care of this uncomfortable situation, the snake finds an object with a rough edge.  It rubs its nose on the rough edge to make a hole in its old too small skin.  Slowly and deliberately the snake continues to rub itself against other rough objects so that the old skin peels back over it head exposing the new skin.  The snake keeps at it until it has crawled out of the old "shed", often leaving it in one piece.  The old skin is actually turned inside out like a sock that has been removed quickly from the foot.    

I noticed that the front door of the nesting box was open a little bit at the bottom and tried to close it, but it wouldn't close easily.  So I took a little peek in the entrance hole.  And here is what I saw!

Looking back at me was this handsome black rat snake.  In this picture you can see its very shiny scales, evidence that it had recently shed its skin.  You can see its white "chin".  And you can see the round pupil of its eye.  The non-venomous snakes of the United States have round pupils.  Most of the venomous snakes (copperhead, water moccasin, and rattlesnakes) have elliptical pupils like a cat's eye.  The venomous coral snake has round pupils but they are not often seen and rather shy and secretive. 

I just had to see a little more of this snake so I opened the front of the nesting box.  You can see a little of the snake's thickness and the flat scales on its side.

With the nesting box door wide open you can see the black rat snake coiled up on top of the nest cup inside.  The snake was trying to avoid me by pulling its head back to the back of the box.  The nest cup began to tip toward me as the snake was trying to hide behind it.

The nest cup turned on its side.  You can see the nesting material in the cup that a pair of birds used for their last nest of the summer.  I am not sure of the species of birds that built this nest.  But getting back to the snake.  It is trying to further hide behind the nest cup.  It is "smelling" the air with its remarkable flicking tongue.
In a flash the nest cup fell out of the nesting box and onto the ground with the snake not far behind.  See how shiny it is?  You can also see some sprinkling of white between the scales on its back and sides and its dark gray belly.  Baby black rat snakes are strongly patterned.  The adult snakes like this nearly six foot long individual still show a little of that pattern between their black scales.  The snake quickly slithered off into the thicket of prairie grasses and plants.  It had been a surprise for me and, well, for the snake, too.  But you know me, it was a wonderful surprise to see such a healthy reptile in late September. 

A fellow blogger (Tyler) suggested that this might be a Black Racer because its scales appear to be smooth and not keeled (ridged).  This photo is an enlargement from picture #5.  Rat snakes are described as having weakly keeled scales.  Although most of this snake's scales looked pretty smooth, some of the scales at the lower left of this photo show a hint of a ridge (keel) along the center.  Black Racers look very similar to Black Rat Snakes, but are described as having smooth scales.  All comments are welcome.

Wood Warblers for the museum

 This is the fall Yellow Warbler that I took to Prairie Ridge for their bird collection.  At Prairie Ridge the bird was put in a plastic bag and placed in a freezer.  At some future time the bird may be mounted or its skin and feathers preserved for teaching students about the identifying marks of the species.  It is always sad to lose a bird, but it is important to preserve the dead ones as a way to teach and a way to learn more about them.  This bird died when it flew into a window at the lab where I work.  It was found and retrieved by a fellow employee who brought it to my desk.  It is the time of year that many birds species including neotropical wood warblers migrate to the Caribbean as well as to Central and South America were there are plenty of insects to eat during our winter months.

Click here to see more information about the Yellow Warbler including a range map.

This is the second warbler I delivered to Prairie Ridge.  This is a Northern Waterthrush.  It flew into the same window as the Yellow Warbler.  Another fellow employee found the bird and notified the receptionist to alert me when I arrived at work.  Notice the thin beak that is perfect for catching insects.  The yellow and brown coloring and pattern of this bird are beautiful to me.  Notice the yellow stripe above its eye and the brown streaks on its breast.  This warbler is often found near wet areas in the woods, in swamps, and along streams and lakes.

 Click here to see more information about the Northern Waterthrush including a range map.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Happy Birthday, Henna!
Here are some little creatures I saw this summer to help celebrate your third birthday.  Hope you have a wonderful party!

This summer I have been fortunate to see a number of butterflies and moths.


This first butterfly I found sipping sap from a very old white oak tree near our house.  Its common name is Creole Pearly Eye.  The five eyespots on both forewing and hind wing help identify it. 

This is the underside view of a Question Mark Butterfly that landed on the window at the lab where I work.  It is a brush-footed or four-footed butterfly.  Insects have six legs, but these butterflies have very small brush like front legs, so it looks like it only has four legs.  Can you see the "question marks"?  One question mark is at the end of one of the back legs.  On the other wing you can see one sort of in the middle of the wing.  This butterfly has a cousin called the Comma Butterfly.  It has a mark on each wing that looks like a comma.

This big eyed butterfly is a Silver Spotted Skipper.  It is feeding on a Speedwell blossom.  Can you see the proboscis (a grayish tube) that it is using sip nectar from the bloom?  The butterfly can store this "drinking straw" by coiling it into a small spring shape.


A Luna Moth came to visit the lab one day.  Actually, we have seen several of these moths this summer at the lab.  This moth has large feather-shaped antenna that it uses to locate a mate by detecting her "aroma".

Another Luna Moth landed on the window a few days later.  This moths are in the silkmoth family.  The caterpillar spins its cocoon from silk that it makes

This is another moth from the silkmoth family.  It is a Tuliptree Silkmoth.  Its caterpillars eat the leaves of yellow poplar which is also called the tulip poplar or tuliptree.  It has sort of a "T-shaped" mark on the forewing and the hind wing.  

I saw this moth at a Moth Event in July at Prairie Ridge EcoStation.  This is a Rosy Maple Moth.  It is also in the silkmoth family.  I love the wonderful pink and yellow colors!  As their name suggests, the caterpillars feed mainly on the leaves of maple trees.

This Rosy Maple Moth landed on the page of a butterfly and moth book that was open to the page that describes it!
There are many kinds of sphinx moths.  This is a Hog Sphinx Moth.  It is also called the Virginia Creeper Sphinx Moth because one of the foods that their caterpillars eat is the leaves of the Virginia Creeper vine.  The adults (moths) feed on the nectar of many different kinds of flowering plants.  They hover like a hummingbird and slip their proboscis into the flower and sip the sweet liquid.

This is a Grape Leaffolder Moth. The caterpillars eat the leaves of grapevines.  When the caterpillar is ready to make its cocoon, it makes three cuts in the leaf it is sitting on.  Then it folds the leaf around itself to make a sort of envelope and closes this pouch with silk.

This is a Tuliptree Beauty Moth.  Its caterpillar is one of the larger "inch worms".  The caterpillar feeds on the leaves of Pawpaws, Sassafras, Poplars, and Tuliptrees.  The moths in the "inch worm" family are also called geometers ("measures the earth") because of the way the caterpillar moves along a leaf.  If the caterpillar is frightened, often it will hold its body stretched out so that it appears to be a small twig.

Click here to see how an "inchworm" moves.

This is a Black-Bordered Lemon Moth.  Its caterpillars eat the leaves of Morning-Glories and certain grasses.  This is another moth I got to see at the Moth Event at Prairie Ridge EcoStation.  To attract the moths, the museum staff hung up lots of white bed-sheets on fences and on the sides of the building.  Then they setup several very bright lights.  The moths would fly in to check out the lights and when tired, would land on the sheets where we could look at them and take pictures.
This little tiny moth is a Southern Emerald Moth.  Its caterpillar is also a geometer, but a much smaller one.  It feeds on the leaves of blackberries and Black-eyed Susan as well as many other plants.
This unusual moth is called the Beautiful Wood Nymph.  Its "nickname" is the "Bird Poop Moth" because it disguises itself on a leaf or a twig as a "splash" of bird poop.

Happy Birthday, Henna!