May 12, 2010

cranefly siesta

Craneflies fly at night and seek shade during the day. Many begin life in streams and ponds as long, fat, white worms, and their physiology is geared toward cool and damp.

This orange species sought perch inside a cluster of Virginia creeper leaves, refuge from the sun all afternoon until evening light crept in.

In damp Southern Appalachia, craneflies are among the most speciose insects, coming in a variety of sizes and patterns. Few are as colorful as the one in the photo, but some have black markings on their wings or abdomen that add a bit of flair. Most are weak fliers, slow and drifting, with their long legs serving as bumpers and feelers.

Sometimes called mosquito hawks or mistaken for mosquitoes, crane flies have tiny, weak mouthparts used primarily to slurp water. Their long abdomen is a storehouse of fats eaten during wormhood, so they have little or no need to eat in adult form and are harmless to man and mosquito alike.

May 7, 2010

yard week

Despite a vigorous spring for the native flora and fauna, bird migration has been slow this year. Not just me but many Southern Appalachian birders report late arrivals and low numbers of warblers and the rest of the lot that winters in the tropics. This week things picked up.

An indigo bunting set up a territory in the front yard, joining the thrasher and field sparrow already raising families in the unmowed scrub. A Cape May warbler and blackpoll sang during a brief feeding stopover, and male grackles displayed amid tuliptree flowers.

I saw something I had never seen before, a traveling flock of kingbirds, and I added gray-cheeked thrush to my life list, though I've seen them in fall several times. Finally I got not only a good look but a chance to hear it sing, go inside to listen to minimus and bicknelli, then hear it sing some more. Check.

I am close enough to a river that I get flyovers by swallows, waterfowl and other riparian birds, so when I spotted a kingbird flying above the trees I was pleased, but not surprised to add eastern kingbird to my yard list. Later I saw first one, then three, then six, ten kingbirds hopping around the treetops. Not only have I never seen a kingbird in my yard, I have never seen them in a flock.

A cedar waxwing flock busied itself gobbling pollen from tuliptrees, while tent caterpillars gobbled the first flush of leaves from black cherries. These caterpillars will not eat the flowers, already fertilized, so the tree will grow new leaves and produce a full crop of fruit by August. It is an agreement between insect and tree which also worked out well for the female tanager gorging herself on caterpillars in the small cherry near my front porch.

It has at least five tents in it, and the caterpillars will eat it bare. Once they have eaten all the leaves, the caterpillars will pupate into a good-sized moth that looks like this. A brood of scarlet tanagers and a flight of brown fuzzies will grow from the cherry tree's sacrifice.

It is tempting to ignore chickadees this time of year in favor of passersby and gladyrbacks, but I watched one long enough to notice it was only visiting the dead tips of oak twigs where wind had ripped leaves or limbs out. It was finding caterpillars, a different species, taking refuge from the afternoon sun. About every third twig the bird checked it swallowed a worm.

A chickadee I saw later in a hickory hopped from one just-opening leaf cluster to another, having similar luck with yet another species of baby moth.